Durban - Mushrooms that have sprung up after the recent heavy rains might be tasty, but many are toxic and will kill those eating them, experts have warned.
Four members of a KwaZulu-Natal family – including a toddler – and a friend died last week after eating a curry made from wild mushrooms picked from a field in Mariannhill.
South Africans appear to be fond of the fungi, but have been urged to buy their mushrooms from shops to avoid picking the poisonous varieties.
“Mushrooms are healthy and they are good for you, but only if you eat the right ones,” said Neil van Rij, a plant pathologist with the Department of Agriculture and Environmental Affairs.
“It’s very important to be certain that you are eating the right mushroom, because once you have eaten a poisonous one, your rate of survival is very low.”
Van Rij said cases of people eating poisonous mushrooms were quite common in South Africa.
With more than 14 000 mushroom species, Van Rij said about 140 were known to be poisonous.
And it was difficult to differentiate between poisonous and edible ones, said Ashley Nicholas, an associate professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s School of Life Sciences.
Nicholas advised people not to consume mushrooms harvested from unknown sources and to only buy from reputable dealers. While wild mushrooms might taste better than the shop-bought ones, he warned that the repercussions could be deadly.
“People often collect or buy these mushrooms from the side of the road and that is extremely dicey and dangerous,” he said.
“Unless you’re absolutely certain that the mushroom is edible then it’s best to buy your mushrooms from the store,” he said,
“Most of the patterns are identical. One is only able to differentiate by the microscopic details and the spores within the gills.”
Nicholas said there were cases where a person had been collecting and eating mushrooms for more than 30 years, only to then pick a poisonous one and die after eating it. “You can’t just use the naked eye to differentiate, that is extremely dangerous,” he said.
“I have been studying mushrooms for years and know a lot about them, but I’m still hesitant to eat a mushroom that hasn’t been bought from the shops.”
Because of the toxicity of certain mushrooms, Nicholas said little could be done once someone had eaten one – “unless you have realised within hours after eating one and rush to the hospital where doctors can pump your stomach”.
While some poisonous mushrooms could take up to three weeks to have an adverse effect on the body, Nicholas said others could kill you as soon as you had eaten one.
The symptoms of poisoning vary, depending on the species, from fatigue, hallucinating, stiff muscular spasms, which eventually lead to liver or kidney failure.
“Your organs completely collapse once the poison has kicked into your body,” he said.
Nicholas said there were several mushrooms that are used for various reasons, like the magic mushroom which is a common recreational drug used for hallucinogenic effects, and the inky cap mushroom, which is used to treat alcoholism.
He said England and South Africa were some of the countries that have high numbers of cases of people dying from eating poisonous mushrooms.
An elderly woman was found dead in her Vryheid home late last year after apparently eating mushrooms believed to have been poisonous.
Sondelani Lukhele, 64, had been at a community meeting when a young boy arrived carrying mushrooms in a plastic packet.
A few people, including Lukhele, had taken some of the mushrooms from the boy.
She was found dead in her house the following day and preliminary police investigations indicated that she could have died after eating the mushrooms.
Several people from the area were hospitalised after consuming the mushrooms.