Horst Hagemann was snuffling about for wild foods near his home in the Adelaide Hills when he spotted a cluster of wild mushrooms. “They looked fantastic; exactly like the mushies you buy from the shops,” he says. “I picked a whole bucketful, took them home and fried them up.”
Horst barely noticed that the tops went a bit yellow when he peeled them. And when he bit into the flesh and there was a slight metallic taste, he put it down to the frying pan. “About 20 minutes later, my god. I thought I was going to fucking die,” says the part-time deer hunter and former plant forager.
“I threw up, shat myself, pissed myself, and sweated like you wouldn’t believe. I just stood there in the dark in my backyard, shaking, shivering and shitting. I was riveted to the spot and thinking, ‘Fuuuuck, this is a way to go.’”
After four hours of agony, Horst was able to crawl into bed, where he simply hoped for the best. But because those mushrooms had looked so appetising, he was still convinced the culprit was the salami he’d paired them with. He even sent the rest of the salami away for testing. When he finally clicked that it was the mushrooms, he swore off plant foraging for life.
Horst speaks of the experience with such intensity it’s a surprise to learn it happened 14 years ago. “I’ve never been sicker,” he says.
Around this time of year, as things get wetter and cooler, the shroom season swings into gear and authorities start issuing warnings about the potentially fatal effects of foraging. Of particular concern is the death cap mushroom, which is the great white shark of the fungi world. Death caps cause more deaths globally than any other mushroom species, and they are so potent that eating just one can kill you.
Death caps also look uncannily like the straw cap mushroom that’s wildly popular (literally) across Asia—even experts can’t tell them apart. In 2015, two Chinese tourists in Canberra died from liver failure after eating them at a dinner party. And although not native to Australia, death caps now grow in most Australian states. Another one to watch out for is the ‘yellow stainer’ from Victoria, which causes a slow and painful death.
Weirdly, some mushrooms aren’t toxic on their own but can suddenly become poisonous when consumed with alcohol, because the booze activates the toxins. “You could knock your liver out with a single meal,” says author and wild foods expert Vic Cherikoff.
But the public health warnings seem to be falling on deaf ears, with an increasing number of people winding up in hospital as a result of eating wild mushrooms, says Dr Brett Summerell, director of science and conservation at Sydney’s Botanic Gardens and Centennial Parklands. Last year, the New South Wales Poisons Information Centre received 49 calls from mushroom foragers who suspected they’d poisoned themselves, up from 40 the year before.
Dr Summerell attributes the rise in mushroom poisonings to the rise of foraging as a culinary trend. There are foraging tours now on offer in urban, foodie-dense areas, and a number of upscale restaurants have also hopped onto the foraging bandwagon.
While some experts say it’s okay to go foraging for shrooms if you’re with an actual expert, others are emphatically against it full stop. “Just don’t eat mushrooms in the wild—ever,” says Genevieve Adamo, a senior specialist at the NSW Poisons Information Centre. “I take those calls [on the poisons hotline] and I just think the consequences are so great that it really isn’t worth it. Why risk it just to have the fun of eating a mushroom you found in the wild?”
Wild foods expert Vic Cherikoff used to run his own "bush tucker" tours, but he also urges people to think twice. “It’s great for people to appreciate the fantastic flavours we have out there. But it has to be done safely,” he says. “If I was going on a foraging tour, I would be asking the person in charge if their public liability insurance is all paid up.”
Cherikoff describes the trend of foraged foods being served up at restaurants as “concerning.” “I think some [restaurants] are definitely putting diners at risk,” he says. “The other day I saw a warrigal green [also known as New Zealand spinach] as a garnish. That’s an absolute no-no; it could give you kidney stones."
He adds that sometimes it’s simply a lack of common sense that produces undesirable dining experiences. “Some people forget to think about the basics. For example, you can harvest paper bark from council trees and you can wrap food in it for cooking, as indigenous communities do.
"But you might forget that big dogs can piss about a metre high, and that you’ll be adding flavours you didn’t intend to.”
Cherikoff has spent time living with remote indigenous communities, but before he’d had the chance to benefit from their knowledge he relied on the “chew and spit” technique to survive. Basically, start with a tiny morsel; if it tastes bad, stop.
However, there are exceptions: finger cherries don’t taste any less delicious when they become infected with fungi. “If you eat fungus-infected fruit you’ll be permanently struck blind. Two or three indigenous kids go blind every year from eating them,” he says.
Another notable exception, as Cherikoff discovered the hard way, is the snakeskin lily: its poison is so potent at certain times of the year that just looking at it will make you sick. Or, almost: “I took the tiniest amount of juice—really, the tiniest little lick of the surface. Not even any flesh or skin,” he recalls.
“The prickles initially started on my tongue, then burnt all the way down my oesophagus. Every breath lit up the pain, which felt like really intense pins and needles. I couldn’t eat or sleep for two days.”