SUPPOSE that during the night a swarm of fairies were to enter our home woods and decorate it on ground and trunk, with the most strange and wonderful fruits, of new sorts, unheard of in shapes and colors, some like fans, with colored lacework, some like carrots, others like green and gold balloons, some like umbrellas, spring bonnets, birds' nests, barbers' poles, and Indian clubs, many like starfish and skulls, others imitating corals and others lilies, bugles, oysters, beefsteaks, and wine cups, resplendent with every color of the rainbow, delicious to eat, coming from nowhere, hanging on no plant and disappearing in a few days leaving no visible seed or remnant - we should think it very strange; we might even doubt our eyesight and call it all a pure fairy tale. Yet this very miracle is what happens every year in our land. At least 2,000 different kinds of toadstools or mushrooms spring up in their own mysterious way. Of this 2,000 at least 1,000 are good to eat. But - and here is the dark and dangerous fact - about a dozen of them are Amanitas, which are known to be deadly poison. And as ill-luck will have it these are the most widely diffused and the most like mushrooms. All the queer freaks, like clubs and corals, the cranks and tomfools, in droll shapes and satanic colors, the funny poisonous looking morels, ink-caps and boleti are good wholesome food but the deadly Amanitas are like ordinary mushrooms, except that they have grown a little thin, delicate and anĉmic.
The New York papers have told of over twenty deaths this August (1911) through toadstool poisoning. The explanation possibly lies in a recorded conversation that took place between a field naturalist and a little Italian who was indiscriminatingly collecting toadstools.
"You are not going to eat those toadstools, I hope?"
"No! me no eata de toad. My mudder she eata de toad and die; me no eata de toad; me sella de toad".
All American boys are brought up with a horror of toadstools that compares only with their horror of snakes and it is perhaps as well. I do not want to send our boys out heedlessly to gather toadstools for the table, but I want to safeguard those who are interested by laying down one or two general rules.
This is the classification of toadstools that naturally occurs to the woodcrafter: Which are eatable and Which are not.
Those which are not fit for food, may be so, first, because too hard and woodlike, and, second, because poisonous.
The great fact that every boy should know is which are the poisonous toadstools. Mark Twain is credited with suggesting a sure test: "Eat them. If you live they are good, if you die they are poisonous." This is an example of a method that can be conclusive, without being satisfactory.
What way can we suggest for general use? First, remember that there is nothing at all in the popular idea that poisonous mushrooms turn silver black.
Next, "not one of the fungi known to be deadly gives warning by appearance or flavor of the presence of poison." (McIlvaine).
The color of the cap proves nothing. The color of the spores, however, does tell a great deal; which is unfortunate as one cannot get a spore print in less than several hours. But it is the first step in identification; therefore the Scout should learn to make a spore print of each species he would experiment with.
Cover some sheets of blue or dark gray paper with a weak solution of gum arabic - one tablespoonful of dry gum to one pint of water; let this dry. Unless you are in a hurry in which case use it at once.
Take the cap of any full-grown toadstool, place it gill side down upon the gummed paper, cover tightly with a bowl or saucer and allow to stand undisturbed for eight or ten hours. The moisture in the plant will soften the gummed surface if it is dry; the spores will be shed and will adhere to it, making a perfect, permanent print. Write the name, date, etc., on it and keep for reference. Some of the papers should be black to show up the white spored kinds.
It will be found most practical for the student to divide all mushrooms, not into two, but into three, groups.
A very small group of about a dozen that are poisonous and must be let alone.
A very large group that are good wholesome food.
Another very large group that are probably good and worthy of trial if it is done judiciously, but have not yet been investigated. Scientists divide them into: Gilled toadstools Pore bearers Spiny toadstools Coral toadstools Puffballs.
All the virulently poison ones as well as the most delicious are in the first group.