These charts are prepared for popular use, rather than for students of botanical science; all technical terms are, therefore, as far as possible, avoided.
The names "mushroom" and "toadstool" are indefinite, are both applied with equal reason to any fleshy fungus, and are here used as synonymes, like the corresponding terms "plant" and "vegetable," or "shrub" and "bush," in common conversation.
No general test can be given by which a poisonous mushroom may be distinguished from an edible mushroom. But each species of fungus has certain marks of identity, either in appearance, quality, or condition of growth, which are its own, and never radically varied; none can contain a venomous element at one time, and yet be harmless under other conditions. Like other food, animal or vegetable, however, mushrooms may, by decay or conditions of growth, be unfit for table use; yet in this state no fatality would attend such use.
Therefore the identification of species is a safe guide, and is the only means of knowing what mushrooms should be eaten, and what varieties of fungus should be rejected. Having once learned to distinguish any species of mushrooms as esculent, perfect security may be felt in the use of that species wherever and whenever found; but any specimen varying from the type in the slightest degree should be rejected by an amateur.
There are about one thousand varieties of mushrooms (exclusive of small or microscopic fungi) native to the United States; many will therefore be found which are not represented on either of these plates. Those here depicted are of three classes, namely, the Lycoperdaceae, or Puff-ball fungi; the Agaricini, or Gill-bearing fungi; and the Boleti, which last is one division of the Polyporei, or Pore-bearing fungi.
The following definitions are here given, and will be found necessary:
The expanded disk or cap of the mushroom or toadstool.
The thin plates set on their edges under the pileus, running to a common centre at the stem.
The spongy collection of pores which take the place of gills under the pileus of a Boletus.
A web or membrane which extends from the margin of the pileus to the stem when the mushroom is young, and thus encloses the gills.
A part of the veil adherent to the stem, and forming a collar around it.
The sheath or wrapper enclosing the young mushroom, when below or just above the ground; the remains of which are found in the ring, the veil, at the base of the stem, and in the warty or scurfy top of some varieties of mushrooms.
The reproductive bodies, analogous to seeds in some other plants, found under the caps of the Agaricini and Boleti, and appearing like fine dust when the cap is left for a time lying under-side downward.
There are as many different flavors and tastes among esculent fungi as are found in any other varieties of diet, and the very general ignorance of this fact is a sufficient reason for the issue of this work. Many persons claim to know a mushroom from a toadstool. This means that there is one variety out of a thousand of which they eat with safety, and it means nothing more. A person might as well select one fish from the sea, and avoid all other members of the finny tribe on the ground that there are poisonous fishes. It is strange that this general ignorance is most; apparent in the case of the English-speaking people. The fungus eaters form a little clique in England, but the majority of her people know nothing of this gratuitous offering from Nature's storehouse. No country is richer in mushroom food than America. Were the poorer classes of Russia, Germany, Italy, or France to see our forests during the autumn rains, they would feast on the rich food there going to waste. For this harvest is spontaneous; it requires no seed-time, and asks for no peasant's toil. At the same time, the economic value of mushroom diet ranks second to meat alone. With bread, and mushrooms properly gathered and prepared, a person may neglect the butcher during the summer months. This is self-evident to the unscientific mind by the simple facts that mushrooms make the same use of the air we breathe as is made by animals, that cooked they resemble no form of vegetable food, and that in decay their odor in some cases cannot be distinguished from that of putrid meat. To this feast, abundantly provided by Nature for the poorest as well as the most epicurean, we invite the American people.
In gathering mushrooms for food, cut the stem off about an inch below the cap, and place them in the basket or dish, gills upward. Never twist or pull them, as the gills become thereby full of dirt, which is not easily removed. By placing them gills downward, they will shed their spores largely and thus lose flavor.
The stem in cutting will often exhibit fine holes; this indicates that maggots have entered the mushroom. If the substance of the pileus continues firm and hard, the mushroom may be cooked and eaten by those not over-nice; but if perforated and soft, the consequent decomposition might induce nausea, and even serious sickness.
Mushrooms may be noxious as food in three ways:
(1.) They may disagree with the system, by their toughness, indigestibility, or use in a state of decay.
(2.) They may be slimy, acrid, or otherwise nauseous.
(3.) They may contain a subtle poison without taste, smell, or other indication of its presence.
Most noxious fungi appertain to the first or second class above given, and taste or common-sense would readily reject them, unless they were cooked with other food or excessively spiced. For this reason plain cooking is advised, and further, no amateur should venture to mingle with good varieties others to him unknown.
Of the third class, there is one family, many of whose members contain a violent and deadly poison. This is known as the Amanita family; and although out of fourteen varieties, four are known to be edible, yet it is here advised to avoid all fungi as food which have these its distinguishing marks:
(1.) A scurfy or warty top, the protuberances of which rub easily off, leaving the skin intact. In a number of specimens many will be found entirely smooth, while near them are others of the same variety where more or less of the specks remain.
(2.) A ring; generally large and reflexed or falling downward.
(3.) A volva; more or less enclosing the young plant, and remaining at the base of the older specimen, so that when the mushroom is pulled up a socket is left in the ground.
These three marks should all exist in the typical plant of this family, and the experienced eye will see signs of their presence, even where they are wanting. But the volva rarely or never decays during the life of the specimen, and to reject everything with this mark is recommended to all amateurs.
So far as known, there are no cases of death by the use of mushrooms except from this one family. In all well-defined cases of fatal poisoning, the cause is just as well defined, namely, the use of the mushroom represented by Plates IX. and X. in this sheet. Therefore, when one has become perfectly acquainted with this family, and learned to always reject them, he has very little to fear in the choice of mushrooms for the table. The poisonous varieties of the Amanita family are extremely common.
The antidote for this poison is found in the skilful use of the alkaloids from the family of the Solanaceae or Nightshades, especially in subcutaneous injections of Atropine. But to the public generally, in oases of poisoning, no other advice can be given than to call a physician without delay.
Plate VI. represents several members of the Russula family. Having once learned to identify it without danger of error, this family is quite safe for use as food; for all the non-esculent Russulas are hot or nauseous to the taste, while the edible ones are very nutty and pleasant. The student should, therefore, taste each specimen when preparing them for cooking.
Some authorities consider all Boleti fit for table use, but there are those which are too bitter for food, and one such as the specimen numbered 1, Plate XI., would spoil a whole stew. The tubes of this Boletus (felleus) are light rose, although they appear to be white when fresh and young. A good rule for amateurs is to avoid all the lurid Boleti; by this is meant all those that have the slightest shade of red to the tubes, although I have often eaten of such. The mild-colored members of this family, having white, yellow, or greenish tubes, if pleasant to the taste, may be considered safe eating.
Plato VIII. represents some of the esculent puff-balls. There are some warty fungi growing on wood, which, in early growth, resemble puff-balls, whose qualities are not yet known. But all those varieties of clear white fungi, which appear in little balls on the open ground after rains, may be eaten with perfect safety, if fresh, white inside, and hard; if soft and yellowish, or black in the pulp, they should be avoided, as they are approaching decay.
The most important advice to the student is to learn to recognize the Amanita family, and to avoid them all; next, to define and recognize any mushroom he is using for food, so that he could pick a single specimen of the same out of a basketful of assorted fungi; and finally, never to pick mushrooms at random for food, unless he has tested by actual use each and all of the varieties so used. There is a large family of mushrooms resembling the Russulas, which exude a milky juice if broken or cut. The amateur will do well to avoid all such, although they are esculent where the milk is mild to the taste. Additional plates, displaying other varieties of esculent mushrooms, may possibly be issued in the future.
Julius A. Palmer, Jr.