This section is from the book "Our Edible Toadstools and Mushrooms and How to Distinguish Them", by W. Hamilton Gibson. Also available from Amazon: Our Edible Toadstools And Mushrooms And How To Distinguish Them.
But in America the fungus is under the ban, its great majority of harmless or even wholesome edible species having been brought into popular disrepute through the contamination, mostly, of a single small genus. In the absence of special scientific knowledge, or, from our present point of view, its equivalent, popular familiarity, this general distrust of the whole fungus tribe may be, however, considered a beneficent prejudice. So deadly is the insidious, mysterious foe that lurks among the friendly species that it is well for humanity in general that the entire list of fungi should share its odium, else those "toadstool" fatalities, already alarmingly frequent, might become a serious feature in our tables of mortality.
But the prejudice is needlessly sweeping. A little so-called knowledge of fungi has often proven to be a "dangerous thing," it is true, but it is quite possible for any one of ordinary intelligence, rightly instructed, to master the discrimination of at least a few of the more common edible species, while being thoroughly equipped against the dangers of deadly varieties, whose identification is comparatively simple.
It is idle to attempt an adjudication of the vexed "toadstool" and "mushroom" question here. The toad is plainly the only final, appealable authority on this subject. It may be questioned whether he is at pains to determine the delectable or noisome qualities - from the human standpoint - of a particular fungus before deciding to settle his comfortable proportions upon its summit - if, indeed, he even so honors even the humblest of them.
The oft-repeated question, therefore, "Is this fungus a toadstool or a mushroom?" may fittingly be met by the counter query, "Is this rose a flower or a blossom?" The so-called distinction is a purely arbitrary, popular prejudice which differentiates the "toadstool" as poisonous, the "mushroom" being considered harmless. But even the rustic authorities are rather mixed on the subject, as may be well illustrated by a recent incident in my own experience.
Walking in the woods with a country friend in quest of fungi, we were discussing this "toadstool" topic when we came upon a cluster of mushrooms at the base of a tree-trunk, their broad, expanded caps apparently upholstered in fawn-colored, undressed kid, their under surfaces being stuffed and tufted in pale greenish hue.
"What would you call those?" I inquired. "Those are toadstools, unmistakably," he replied. "Well, toadstools or not, you see there about two pounds of delicious vegetable meat, for it is the common species of edible boletus - Boletus edulis."
A tew moments later we paused before a beautful specimen, lifting its parasol of pure white above the black leaf mould.
"And what is this ?" I inquired.
"I would certainly call that a mushroom," was his instant reply.
This mushroom proved to be a fine, tempting specimen of the Agaricus (amanita) vermis, the deadliest of the mushrooms, and one of the most violent and fatal of all known vegetable poisons, whose attractive graces and insidious wiles are doubtless continually responsible for those numerous fatalities usually dismissed with the epitaph, "Died from eating toadstools in mistake for mushrooms."
So much, therefore, for the popular distinction which makes "toadstool" a synonyme for "poisonous," and "mushroom" synonymous with "edible," and which often proves to be the "little knowledge" which is very dangerous.
The too prevalent mortality traceable to the mushroom is confined to two classes of unfortunates: 1. Those who have not learned that there is such a thing as a fatal mushroom; 2. The provincial authority who can "tell a mushroom" by a number of his so-called infallible "tests" or "proofs." There is a large third class to whose conservative caution is to be referred the prevalent arbitrary distinction between "toadstool" and "mushroom," ardent disciples of old Tertullian, who believed in regard to toadstools that "For every different hue they display there is a pain to correspond to it, and just so many modes of death as there are distinct species," and whose obstinate dogma, "There is only one mushroom, all the rest are toadstools," has doubtless spared them an occasional untimely grave, for few of this class, from their very conservatism, ever fall victims to the "toadstool."