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Mushrooms: What To Forage and What To Leave Alone

Watch: Take a Walk on the Wild (Edibles) Side

No, the Pineapple Express rains that pelted California last month doesn't mean that the drought's over. The deluge has to continue for a while to pull us out of these historic levels of dryness. But the rains did bring some old friends out of hiding: edible mushrooms. However, the rains also dredged up some old enemies as well: poisonous mushrooms.

So, how do you tell the difference?

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"You never hear about an expert poisoning themselves to death," said Patrick Hamilton, the foray leader for Sonoma County Mycological Association. "I would never eat a potentially deadly mushroom."

The variety that causes the most cases of poisoning is Amanita phalloides, often mistaken for Volvariella, a paddy-style mushroom that's used in Southeast Asian food. "When they get large, Volvariella are big, white, handsome-looking mushrooms," Hamilton said. But in certain cases, the mushrooms look a lot like Amanita phalloides, the so-called "death cap" mushroom. "If you eat it, unless you get a liver transplant, chances are you're going to die."

(There has been some recent success of avoiding a full liver transplant if injections of silibinin are administered quickly after ingesting the death caps.)

Death caps can also resemble the coccoli, an edible mushroom that's plucked in the Bay Area due to its similarity to the Cesar's Amanita style of mushroom found in Italy. A mistake in this identification is believed to be behind the 1997 death of Sam Sebastiani Jr., of the famed California wine family. Which brings us to Hamilton's top tip when it comes to eating any foraged mushrooms:

"Don't eat anything if you don't know what it is," Hamilton said.

Getting to this point requires some education. Every weekend, Hamilton gives tours in the Bay Area where he takes amateur foragers out and identifies mushroom varieties. The Mediterranean climate in the Bay Area, particularly along the coast, makes it a perfect breeding ground for mushrooms.

Unfortunately, it's also an area that can't be foraged freely. In Sonoma, foraging is legal only in Salt Point State Park and the national forests. Do so elsewhere, and you risk a steep fine. "I've watched whole entire administrations change, and they still stick to the fact that they don't want people to pick mushrooms," Hamilton said. "When I ask for evidence or reasons, one by one I can go through and dismiss each one as being not valid."

While Los Angeles isn't known as the same mushroom haven as the Bay Area, there are still plenty of foraging opportunities. Placerita Canyon State Park in Santa Clarita is known for a wide variety of mushrooms, and Riverside County is a fertile ground. The Los Angeles Mycological Society explores these areas on a regular basis, so signing up for one of their foraging walks is a good way to start your education.

But if you can't sign up for one of the walks, Hamilton recommends picking up one of two books on the subject, both by David Arora. "Mushrooms Demystified" is the so-called Bible on mushroom foraging. It is also over 1,000 pages and weighs a hefty 3.2 pounds. So, if you're looking for a pocket guide, "All That the Rain Promises and More" is the way to go. It focuses on only California-based fungi and won't break your back on a hike.

But even all of that knowledge isn't enough to keep you from the occasional indigestion that comes from diving into the mushroom foraging life. "I mean, I've sickened myself plenty of times," Hamilton said. "But I do that because I'm an edgy mushroom person."

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