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Death-Cap Mushrooms are Unstoppable and Terrifying

Mushrooms are rightfully hailed as versatile multitaskers, encompassing roles as sustenance, educators, silver screen luminaries, and muse for design innovations. Yet, within this diverse spectrum lies a darker truth—a truth familiar to those acquainted with The Last of Us, whether through gameplay or observation: some mushrooms are lethal.

Hopefully, we have got some time before civilization is destroyed by zombie-inducing cordyceps. But for now, our attention should be directed towards a specific menace—amanita phalloides, also known as the death cap mushroom.

Deathcap mashroom

The malevolent amatoxin they harbor is accountable for an astounding 90 percent of global mushroom-related fatalities. It orchestrates grievous harm to the liver, instigating hemorrhagic disorders, cerebral edema, and systemic organ failure for the fortunate few who endure its effects.

Regrettably, the death cap's sinister grasp extends to innocents, like the three-year-old from British Columbia who, on a familial foraging excursion near their residential complex, tragically consumed a death cap, misidentifying it as an edible straw mushroom.

In Melbourne, the consumption of a pot pie tainted with death caps led to the demise of three adults, while a fourth clung to life in critical condition.

As the visual allure of mushrooms is celebrated in the showcased episode of The Atlantic's Life Up Close series, author Craig Childs conveys a sobering reality: humanity is the architect of its own affliction. We facilitated the uncontrolled propagation of death caps far beyond their native confines in Scandinavia and parts of northern Europe, where they thrived on the root tips of deciduous trees, giving rise to neat fairy rings.

With the importation of these trees to enhance urban landscapes worldwide, the death caps—whose delicate spores lack the autonomy for extensive dispersion—managed to hitch a ride. Their presence now graces the Pacific Northwest, cozying up to transplanted sweet chestnuts, beeches, hornbeams, lindens, red oaks, and English oaks, among other hospitable species.

Biochemist Paul Kroeger, co-founder of the Vancouver Mycological Society, elucidated that these invasive death caps are not exclusive to dense woodlands. Instead, they have taken root in urban enclaves, often populating the grassy strips adorning sidewalks. An illustrative instance involves Childs accompanying Krueger during his rounds, where the first of many death caps discovered that day were unearthed before a residence adorned with Halloween embellishments.

Once established, these death caps defy eviction. Transforming from mere visitors to permanent residents, they've even extended their influence to indigenous oaks in California and Western Canada.

Childs underscores that the threat posed by death caps is no longer confined to North America. Their reach now spans the globe wherever exotic trees have been embraced in landscaping and forestry, spanning North and South America, New Zealand, Australia, South and East Africa, and Madagascar.

A poignant account emerges from Canberra, Australia, in 2012, where a seasoned chef and his assistant unwittingly integrated locally harvested death caps into a New Year's Eve feast. Tragically, both succumbed within two days, awaiting liver transplants. Meanwhile, another guest at the event fell ill but survived after a successful transplant.

Foragers must tread with utmost vigilance in this perilous pursuit.

You can learn more about mushrooms from the following books:

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