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Plentiful wild ‘death cap’ mushrooms in Sonoma County can kill

Retired high school biology teacher Darvin DeShazer of Sebastopol gets the calls from hospitals and veterinary clinics when serious illness strikes and foraged mushrooms are the culprits.

DeShazer picked up the phone Dec. 3 when Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital called about a 37-year-old man who arrived suffering nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, painful symptoms that developed about 10 hours after he cooked and ate mushrooms he picked from somewhere in Santa Rosa.

It was the start of a bad season for foraged mushroom poisonings. Over the next two weeks, at least 14 people fell severely ill in Northern California after eating the notorious “death cap” mushroom, Amanita phalloides. Three people required liver transplants, including an 18-month-old girl who also suffered permanent neurological damage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“They're majestic, they're big and substantial, but unfortunately it only takes one to kill you,” DeShazer said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this month released a report on an uptick in death cap mushroom poisonings in Northern California in December, the height of the mushroom foraging season.

Death caps are an invasive species of mushroom thought to have traveled to America on the roots of European trees and shrubs. They have a classic mushroom shape, white flesh with a yellow-blue hue and a broad cap between 2 and 6 inches wide.

When eaten, the mushrooms contain amino acids and enzymes that attack the liver, potentially causing liver failure and, without treatment, death. They are the main cause of mushroom poisonings worldwide.

And they're proliferating.

The 2016 winter rains nourished all varieties of flora and fauna in drought-parched California, causing a bumper crop of mushrooms, feeding an already thriving fungus that can be mistaken for other safe-to-eat kinds. Anticipating such possible misidentifications, the Bay Area Mycological Association alerted state officials last year that the death caps were out in great numbers.

The increase in poisonings “is not random, the ‘death cap' is spreading,” said DeShazer, who co-founded the Sonoma County Mycological Association.

While there were just four calls to the California Poison Control System about significant mushroom poisonings in 2015, that jumped to 15 calls in 2016, said executive director Stuart E. Heard. The center gets hundreds of calls about mushroom ingestions each year, and the vast majority are not serious.

But, Heard said, “You can get very sick and almost die if you don't pay attention.”

When the 37-year-old man ended up at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital in December, hospital staff sent DeShazer photos of mushrooms from the crop he'd picked. They showed the death cap's characteristic annulus ring on the stalk, and DeShazer sent the photos to a Santa Cruz doctor who specializes in treating mushroom poisonings.

The man was transferred to Santa Cruz, treated with intravenous fluids and sent home after six days, according to the CDC report.

Another case included a family who ate grilled wild mushrooms, including an 18-month-old girl.

“The mushrooms had been given to her by a person she did not know, who reportedly picked them earlier in the day in the mountains,” the report said.

The entire family got sick, and the toddler underwent a liver transplant six days after the meal.

Another case included four men, between 19 and 22 years old, who thought they were eating psychedelic mushrooms picked from the wild.

“Be extraordinarily cautious of wild mushrooms,” Heard said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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