Book Review

Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms of the World

by Ian R. Hall, Steven L. Stephenson, Peter K. Buchanan, Wang Yun, & Anthony L. J. Cole
Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2003
ISBN 0-88192-586-1, 371 pages, $39.95

In reviewing the CD-ROM The Secret Lives of Mushrooms, I noted that it didn't fit into any of the traditional mushroom hook categories: field guide, coffee table hook, technical monograph, and so on. That comment also applies to this new book by four Kiwis and a Yank. It uniquely combines an overview of commercial mushroom cultivation, an introduction to hunting wild mushrooms, and a survey of some of the world's common and distinctive mushrooms. The four New Zealanders – Hall, Buchanan, Wang, and Cole – are actively involved in mushroom cultivation, including ectomycorrhizal species such as the Perigord truffle and Lactarius deliciosus. The American, Steve Stephenson, is one of the world's foremost slime mold experts. Given the geography and professional interests of the authors, their names may be unfamiliar to many NAMA members. The book opens with a short but wide-ranging introduction and a multilingual warning about the dangers inherent in messing about with mushrooms. It ends with a variety of appendices: Chinese colloquial names for mushrooms, addresses of mostly national mycological societies from many countries, and a list of useful websites-plus a glossary, reference/reading list, and an index that includes only mushroom names. Sandwiched between the before and after are the three main sections: "Cultivating Mushrooms" (65 pages), "Collecting Wild Mushrooms" (26 pages), and "A List of Wild Mushrooms" (182 pages). I enjoyed the first section most, probably because I knew less of the material in it and because it's the area where the collective experience of the authors is strongest.

Book Cover

The Cultivating section covers saprotrophic and ectomycorrhizal species from a commercial viewpoint. Thus, you won't find much advice for home cultivators. After a brief bit about commercial considerations, techniques for raising a variety of mushrooms are described: Agaricus bisporus/bitorquis (button mushroom, cremini, Portobello), shiitake, oysters, wood ear, straw mushroom, enokitake, white jelly, nameko, and "other species." The first three receive the lengthiest treatments. The ectomycorrhizal species get a brief introduction, discussion of commercial considerations, and cultivation techniques, before the text moves on to the different species. Most of the extensive discussion centers on the Perigord black truffle. Although other species, such as Lactarius deliciosus, are being introduced into timber plantations, most commerce in ectomycorrhizal species still involves mushrooms collected from the wilds. The section is nicely illustrated with numerous good-quality and informative photos, most taken by the authors.

The Collecting section addresses when and where to look for mushrooms, identifying wild mushrooms, trick or treat (edibility), mushroom toxins, rules for picking and eating mushrooms, keeping a permanent record, and photographing mushrooms. The information will be familiar to most mushroom-hunters. Unfortunately, among the standard fare, the authors accept and pass along anecdotal information such as "in 1996 in the Ukraine 92 people died ... after confusing light-colored Amanita species for edible mushrooms" (news accounts of these alleged events are notoriously unreliable, "mistaking a poisonous species like A. pantherina or A. virosa for an edible one has led to the demise of a number of keen amateurs and even an occasional professional mycologist" (who were these unfortunate professionals?), "consumption of Amanita pantherina may prove fatal," and "the fairy ring mushroom ... can be confused with the deadly poisonous Clitocybe dealbata and C. nebularis" (I'll grant the potential for confusion, but I've never seen documentation of the deadliness).

Although poisonous mushrooms certainly can present hazards, some of the book's precautions are a stretch, to say the least. For instance, "even the spores of the death cap are poisonous, and so edible mushrooms that have been stored in the same collecting bag [not a good idea, although not for fear of spore contamination] should always be discarded"; "if you have been handling a death cap, do not put your fingers near your mouth ..."; and "wash it [a bowl inverted over mushrooms when making a spore print] carefully afterward in case the mushrooms are poisonous." Even if spores contain toxins (which would not surprise me), one would have to ingest a tremendous number of them to have any effect whatsoever. In discussing look-alikes, there's a caution against confusing Agaricus campestris with Panaeolus and Psilocybe. While I'll admit that nearly anything's possible when it comes to mushroom identification, this would have to rank among the less likely potential mistakes. Better to focus on things that truly do look similar.

Though this is not an identification guide, two pinwheel keys to genera are included (one for stipitate, one for not). They are simple and easy to use. However, that simplicity means that they won't work for the "fuzzy" things that don't have distinctive features. Nonetheless, for those new to the game they provide a good example of how mushrooms can be identified.

The List section includes photos and discussions/descriptions of approximately 100 species (including one slime mold and one lichen), plus additional discussions of species groups (e.g., "poisonous Russula species"). The information presented varies from species to species, sometimes emphasizing the description, at other times emphasizing comments. The photographs range from a few marginally adequate ones to many superb ones, with most of the latter being contributed by long-time NAMA member Emily Johnson and the talented Japanese photographer Masana Izawa. In fact, it appears that selection of the species to be included may have been governed largely by the availability of first-rate images from these two photographers. Thus, species from eastern North America and Asia comprise a large proportion of the coverage. Many of them are commonly illustrated mushrooms such as Boletus edulis, Suillus luteus, Cantharellus cibarius, Agaricus campestris, Coprinus comatus, and Marasmius oreades. The section makes for interesting browsing, and many of the photos are a treat, but don't expect it to greatly expand your knowledge of world mushrooms. Overall, this is an attractive, well-produced book (it's a joy to read something that isn't chock-full of typos) with lots of information, at a reasonable price. The cultivation information is interesting and authoritative and the photographs are beautiful. Just remember to take some of those wild mushroom details with a grain of salt.

Review by Steve Trudell, Seattle, WA
Originally published in The Mycophile 45:3, 2004

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