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.
So here are the key features that you should learn to recognise:
- Cap – 4-12cm diameter, round, convex to flat, near white to yellowish and olivaceous green. Sometimes with moveable white scales, but these are often 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 for a discussion of this. In perfect condition (which toadstools rarely are!) you may also note a ‘snakeskin’ patterning on the stem – though this is often indistinct.
- Gills – unattached to stem (free), crowded, white.
- Habitat – deciduous woods, especially beneath oak.
- Season – August – November (UK)
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…
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.
The false deathcap (Amanita citrina) 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.
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
- Poisonous species
- Edible Wild Fungi Guide
- Mushrooms and Toadstools: What’s The Difference?
- The Day I Ate A Deadly Plant: The Spectrum of Edibility
- Introduction to Fungi Foraging