Name: Death Cap (Amanita phalloides)
Otherwise known as: Deadly Agaric
Habitat: A deadly fungi member of the Agaricaceae family, growing up to 10cm with a cap of 8cm in woodland and bordering meadows in Europe. The cap is flesh-like and hemispherical with a pale lemon yellow tinge sometimes with a darker brown center. It is distinguished by white spores and gills with a ring on the stem and a volva – wrapper – that encloses the young plant; the remains of this can be observed at the base. It is claimed that up to 90 per cent of all deaths from fungi poisoning can be attributed to the Death Cap.
What does it do: The word Amanita derives from the Greek and described the field mushrooms which are abundant in the northern parts of the country and are still referred to as the Manitari: yet another example of the contrary nature of the Hellens. Two other members of this group have proved equally fatal – A. verna and A. virosa – the latter considered even more dangerous as it is white and easily mistaken for edible varieties. The Romans were attracted to the plant as a method of removing rivals. It is reported that Caesar Claudius, a man mightily fond of his mushrooms, was dispatched by his wife Agrippina by way of including a Death Cap in a breakfast dish to ensure the succession of her son, Nero, who thereafter referred to fungi as being ‘food for the gods’ following the deification of Claudius, post mortem.
According to John Ramsbottom, one-time Keeper of Botany at the British Museum… ‘to know if a species is edible or poisonous it is necessary to recognise it and to learn its reputation’. No folk rule of thumb method is safe. If one applied some of the recommended ways of ensuring safety, such as poisonous fungi grow only under trees and not in fields, then the three most dangerous varieties would be considered safe, and the field mushroom dangerous.
Some medieval herbalists made purges from dried and stored Amanitas with mixed results. Very few survive a meal of this toadstool, death comes slowly and is excruciatingly painful.
Alexander McCowan is author of The World’s most Dangerous Plants