Death By Name, Death By Nature

Autumn mushrooms to watch out for

by tess alekseev

If you’ve ever gone on a walk in autumn, you’ve almost definitely seen a mushroom or two popping up from the ground. You were also probably told that you were not to pick, and certainly not to eat, any of the mushrooms you found — they’re poisonous! But what if they weren’t?

While, yes, some mushrooms are poisonous, they make up a small percentage of the species, and they’re relatively easy to identify.

Whether you’re interested in mycology (the study of mushrooms) or just a curious adventurer, knowing how to identify common poisonous mushrooms is a skill that could save your life in a pinch!

A poisonous mushroom typically has either a ring on the stem, called an annulus, or a bulb at the root of it, called a volva. Both of these are remnants of veils, or membranes that cover the mushroom during its growth. However, once it is mature, the veil falls away, leaving either an annulus or a volva. The veils are commonly found in variants of Amanita, the genus that contains the most poisonous mushrooms.

These deadly Amanita species include the Destroying Angel and the Death Cap, both of which are, yes, as bad as they sound.

Destroying Angel mushroom. Photo credit to

The Destroying Angel is a mushroom commonly found in yards that border forests. Its resemblance to other edible species has landed many amateur mycologists in hot water. It’s a stunningly stark white all the way from cap to volva, and usually found in pristine condition– that is, no bruises or missing pieces. It has an annulus near the top of its stem, and in its youth, resembles an egg sitting on the forest floor. However, under no circumstances should you eat this egg! Like many other fatally poisonous mushrooms, it contains the compound amatoxin.

Amatoxins are particularly dangerous in that they have similar symptoms to a stomach bug, and after the first wave, the symptoms disappear for a few days — all the while, the amatoxins are still in the system, and without treatment, the victim will die of renal failure.

Death cap mushroom. Photo credit to

Arguably the most famously deadly mushroom is Amanita Phalloides, or the Death Cap. It’s often been called the most deadly mushroom in the world, and for good reason: it’s estimated to be responsible for more deaths than any other mushroom. However, it can easily be identified if you know what to look for. It has an annulus and a volva, both of which are larger than when found in other Amanita species. It has a yellow-green cap, which is noticeably darker near the top. It also has white, crowded gills, which help to set it apart from the familiar and edible Paddy Straw mushroom. However, as always, if you are not sure, do not eat it!

The Cortinarius genus, or the webcap genus, is home to two particularly deadly species, belonging to a subgenus called Orellani: the Deadly Webcap and the Fool’s Webcap.

Deadly Webcap mushroom. Photo credit to

The Deadly Webcap has an ochre cap that curves down in its youth, and retains the curve as it matures. However, the most noticeable feature of the Deadly Webcap are the upturned gills at the edges of the cap, making it look like an upside-down umbrella. Its stem resembles more of a tree trunk, and curves slightly. The Fool’s Webcap resembles the Deadly Webcap, but has a more orange tone. However, don’t let the name fool you — it may be mistaken for a Deadly Webcap by a fool, but only a fool would eat it!

Autumn Skullcap mushroom. Photo credit to

Continuing with the theme of aptly-named mushrooms, we have the Autumn Skullcap. This small brown mushroom is primarily found in forests growing on decaying conifers. It has a flat amber-colored cap, sometimes with a small bump at the top of the cap, wherein it would then be called an umbonate cap. Younger specimens of the species also have the annulus on their stems, but it will occasionally disappear as the mushroom ages.

Though there are poisonous mushrooms out there, the reality is that most mushrooms you’ll encounter are either edible or, if they are poisonous, nonfatal. Don’t let the few fatally poisonous species keep you inside this November! Go for a walk and find some mushrooms. Just make sure that you confidently identify them before eating one.