Delicious or deadly? You pick

When it comes to foraging in the wild for free food, the price paid for error can be exceptionally high, writes Jim Gilchrist

NEMO me impune lacessit – “wha daur meddle wi’ me?” The motto adorns the Scottish coat of arms, but can just as easily be applied to certain poisonous species of mushroom: Cortinarius speciosissimus, to which novelist Nicholas Evans, his wife and his in-laws fell victim while on holiday near Forres last week.

Evans, author of the bestselling novel The Horse Whisperer, and his wife, Charlotte, were on holiday on the Moray estate of her brother, Sir Alastair Gordon-Cumming, and they, plus Sir Alastair’s wife Louise, had to be hospitalised after cooking and eating mushrooms picked during a woodland walk. They were given dialysis at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and yesterday were described as “recovering”.

The mushroom they ate, Cortinarius speciosissimus, is a highly poisonous species that bears a superficial resemblance to the much sought-after chanterelle. At a time when more people than ever before are foraging for edible fungi and other wild food what happened to the author and his party illustrates the need to exercise extreme caution in what you pick.

“If it was Cortinarius speciosissimus that doesn’t surprise me too much,” says Patrick Harding, author of several books including The Mushroom Miscellany, published this week, and Mushroom Hunting. “This has happened in Scotland before. Basically, Cortinarius speciosissimus is a yellowy-orange colour so, to the uninitiated, could be confused with a chanterelle. The chanterelle is probably more common in Scotland than anywhere else in Britain and, given this year’s wet weather, there have been a lot of them about.”

Harding, who will lead several foraging courses from Crieff later this month (all fully booked), stresses there is no overall rule about what is edible or poisonous. He is dismissive of the old wives’ tales, for example a mushroom being edible if it peels. “You can peel the [highly poisonous] death cap. One has to be 100 per cent certain about the species.”

To avoid confusion between edible chanterelles and poisonous Cortinarius, Harding suggests leaving the mushrooms on a sheet of paper for three hours: “The chanterelle leaves a very pale, almost white spore print, whereas the Cortinarius leaves a dark, rusty brown one.”

Earlier reports suggested mistakenly that the culprit in the Evans case had been Amanita virosa, also known as the Destroying Angel, a member of the Amanita family of mushrooms that includes other toxic species such as the Death’s Cap (Amanita phalloides), which is responsible for the majority of mushroom- related deaths in this country.

“There aren’t really that many mushrooms or toadstools that are going to kill you,” says David Genney, a mycological adviser to Scottish Natural Heritage, but the Amanitas are definitely to be avoided. “They grow up as if they’ve broken out of an egg,” he adds, referring to the sac-like sheath at the base of the stem, “and any mushroom that looks as if it’s come out of an egg you must treat with extreme caution. The red one with white spots, Fly Agaric [Amanita muscaria], is another.”

As for Cortinarius speciosissimus. Genny reports that three people camping in the North of Scotland consumed it and suffered such severe renal failure that two of them had to be kept on dialysis until kidney donors were found.

But the need for prudence in the current foraging craze goes beyond fungi. Deadly nightshade is famously poisonous, but children can be taken in by its black, cherry-like fruit and tend to be its main victims.

Harding also points to the interest in wild herbs, for medicinal or other purposes and comments that the leaves of the healing herb comfrey look similar to those of the potentially toxic foxglove.

Some years ago, several young holidaymakers in Argyll suffered seizures, vomiting and hallucinations after mistaking another poisonous plant, hemlock water-dropwart (Oenanthe crocata), for water parsnip and mixing it into a curry.

Richard Mabey, whose classic Food For Free first stirred interest in foraging in the early 1970s, agrees there can be no hard-and-fast rule for fungi. “You either have to learn the Top 10 good mushrooms, which are absolutely unmistakable, or go the other way and learn the half-dozen seriously poisonous ones and avoid them like the plague, then take a chance with anything else, on the understanding you might get a few cases of indigestion but not actually kill yourself.”

&#149 Valvona & Crolla runs Monday “Fungus Surgeries” during the foraging season, where people can bring what they have collected over the weekend and have them checked by a mycologist. See

&#149 For mushroom foraging courses in Crieff, see