Poisonous fungi – Death Cap and Destroying Angel v False Deathcap

Death cap, amanita phalloides

The death cap is the most deadly of all fungi, a lethal dose being as little as 20g. What makes it most dangerous is that symptoms do not usually show until 6 – 24 hours after ingestion, and by this time it is often too late for effective treatment. As identification of the cause of poisoning is crucial, this gap also makes it difficult to trace the source. When symptoms do set in, they are agonising and pretty much irreversible: violent vomiting, diarrhoea and abdominal pain before liver and kidney are attacked by amatoxins, ending protein synthesis and causing cell death. This is damaging enough, but the toxins are then recirculated through the system to do their violence again. This is doubly cruel, as the victim may experience apparent respite for a day or so before his major organs are fully destroyed.

The lethal Death Cap mushroom (amanita phalloides)

The lethal Death Cap mushroom (amanita phalloides)

So here are the key features that you must be able to recognise:

  • Cap – 4-12cm diameter, round, convex to flat, near white to yellowish and olivaceous green. Sometimes with moveable white scales, but these may be washed off.
  • Stem – 5-12cm, white, ring (often feint as above), thickening to basal bulb encased in white volva (again, the example above is unusually indistinct). The volva can be hidden beneath ground level/vegetation. This is why collecting whole specimens is important when identifying fungi. See here.
  • Gills – unattached to stem (free), crowded, white.
  • Habitat – deciduous woods, especially beneath oak.
Death Cap, amanita phalloides - more typical looking here than on my images. Source: Wiki

Death Cap, amanita phalloides – more typical looking here than on my images. Source: Wiki

Death caps seem to be quite scarce in Scotland. It took me many years of searching to find my first one. Since then I’ve got my eye in and have a few spots for them across SW Scotland now. They are much more common in S England, especially in oak woods.

A few years ago a patch of about 30 death caps appeared in a 2 square metre area under oak and hazel near my home. I’d never seen them there before, and have never seen more than the odd one there since. Witchcraft…?! Or more likely just a reminder that fungal mycelium can be present for long periods without producing mushrooms…

Death cap, Amanita phalloides, emerging from its universal veil. Galloway, late September. Image ©GallowayWildFoods.com

The Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa) has very similar features but is pure white, and eerily beautiful in shady woodland. I have found it under oak, beech and conifers in SW Scotland. It is lethal in the same way as the death cap.

Destroying Angel – Amanita virosa

The false deathcap (amanita citrana) is distinguished from the true deathcap by its bulbous base and smell of raw potatoes. It is an edible species, though not nearly tasty enough to warrant the worry of mistaking it for its notorious cousin. Be very, very sure of your identification skills if you plan to eat it! It is much more common than the death cap or destroying angel in W Scotland, appearing mostly under beech and oak trees.

False detached, amanita citrana

False deathcap, amanita citrana

The best advice to the worried beginner is to be extremely wary of any mushroom with a volva at the base of the stipe, and follow my maxim:

“Don’t be a random Amanita-Eater!”

With all this said, people too often get (understandably) over-tense about deadly poisonous wild mushrooms, imagining them at every turn. Here is a post I made on social media that gives a little perspective on the subject…


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Mark Williams (@markwildfood)

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  • Mary Louise Boyle says:

    Hi mark, your info here has really helped calm my nerves about where death caps many grow but I have a question I’d be so grateful if you could answer….ive also read that death caps may grow in a field by a woodland, is that simply bcs the roots are under the ground of the field? I am a panicking because we have a natural limestone cliff wall in our back garden ( in northern Ireland ) and on top of that theres a row of trees and they run down the street. I don’t know if that counted as woodland but I feared the spores could drop down into our garden which has got a few trees (not together , at different sides of the garden), and grow death caps, and maybe some day my puppy would snack on them! Generally do death caps need to be in a woodland environment to grow? I assume if they could grow other places more easily then more would be heard about it. Thankyou so much!! Best wishes, ML

    • Mark Williams says:

      Hi Mary, Given the right tree/soil/climate, DC’s can occur. They aren’t common where I am in SW Scotland (not far from you), but that doesn’t mean you definitely couldn’t have any. All I can say is keep an eye out. They don’t jump down anyone’s throat, and have a short growing season, so hopefully you could spot them if they were there

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