Tom Volk's Fungus of the Month for May 2003

This month's fungus is Galerina autumnalis, the deadly Galerina.

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Galerina autumnalis, photo by Sean Westmoreland, M.S.Galerina autumnalis is a deadly poisonous mushroom, rather common in our area and just about everywhere else I've looked. It can be found in relatively wet forests on very well decayed wood. Usually the wood I find it on is almost falling apart, with the substrate log lying on the ground and often covered with moss. Galerina seems to colonize the wood only in the wake of other fungi that have already partially broken it down. At least I've only seen it fruiting on such decrepit looking wood. Has anyone found it on intact wood? Galerina also seems to have a very long fruiting season and fruits multiple times each year from the same mycelium. I think I've found it in every month that we don't have snow.

Galerina autumnalis can be identified by its brown cap, with a relatively small fragile annulus (ring) on the stipe (stem). The lower part of the stipe is usually darker brown, sometimes with apparent floccules, or little tufts of hyphae. Above the annulus (the remnant of the partial veil), the stipe is usually lighter tan in color and lacks ornamentation. The gills are about the same color as the top of the stipe and darken with age. The mushrooms are usually not very big, with the caps only about an inch or two (2-5 cm) in diameter and the stipes are usually less than 2 inches (5 cm). The spore print is a rusty brown. Microscopically, the basidiospores typically have a plage, which looks to me like a slightly wrinkled plastic shrink-wrap covering over the distal end of the spore, but not the end where the spore attached to the basidium. You can often see the faint jagged line delimiting the end of the plage. Why am I telling you all these details of what this mushroom looks like? If you are planning on eating wild mushrooms, Galerina is a mushroom you must be able to identify by sight, since eating even just a little of it can be deadly.

Galerina autumnalis, photo by Sean Westmoreland, M.S.The toxin contained in Galerina is the same toxin, a-amanitin, contained in the destroying angels, Amanita virosa, A. verna, A. bisporigera, and A. ocreata. It induces exactly the same symptoms: The toxin in Galerina (and in the death angels) is a relatively small protein of eight amino acids, a cyclopeptide called a-amanitin. According to John W. Rippon, Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago in Medical Mycology, a-amanitin works by slowly attacking the enzyme RNA polymerase. Although RNA polymerase occurs in all body cells, the cells of the liver are particularly affected because the body tries to sequester (and accumulate) toxins in the liver, and those cells are damaged the most. The a-amanitin ultimately affects the central nervous system and kidneys. Unlike many fungal toxins it does not cause symptoms right away. As long as 6-24 hours after ingestion there may be an early feeling of unease, followed by violent cramps and diarrhea. On the third day, there is a remission of symptoms, but this is a false remission. On the 4th to 5th day the enzymes increase, and liver and kidneys are severely affected. Death often follows if a liver transplant or other heroic measures are not performed. There is no cure for ingestion of the poison once it gets this far, but doctors are getting much better at treating the symptoms. This is *not* a mushroom you want to mess around with.

Armillaria and Galerina growing togetherFortunately, cases in which someone eats Galerina on purpose are very rare. The mushroom is not particularly attractive looking and their small size deems them unworthy of gathering for the table. The major danger with Galerina is accidentally and carelessly placing some Galerina fruiting bodies into your collecting basket along with mushrooms they superficially resemble, such as Armillaria gallica, the honey mushroom or Flammulina velutipes, the velvet stem mushroom. Here's the scenario: Sometimes you're lucky (or skilled) and find lots of these edible Armillaria and Flammulina. You find so many that picking them becomes more of a chore than a pleasure. You stop paying attention to every mushroom you place in your basket. You accidentally cut off a Galerina or two or more and place them in with the edible mushrooms. You're so tired and hungry when you get home that you just dump your mushrooms into a skillet and fry them up. You accidentally eat some Galerina. Two or three days later you die. Moral of the story: You must identify every single mushroom in your basket to species and know everything about it, either through books or reputable websites (although I cannot take responsibility for anything that you might eat), before you can even think about eating it. You must be absolutely sure of your identification, since a meal of mushrooms is not worth the price of your life. The major most obvious difference between Galerina and those two edible species is that Galerina has a rusty brown spore print, while Armillaria and Flammulina have white spore prints. There have also been examples of people dying from eating Galerina when they think they are eating hallucinogenic Psilocybe species, which also have a brown spore print. The series of photos to the left shows Armillaria gallica and Galerina autumnalis growing side by side on the same log. In these pictures Armillaria is on the left and Galerina is on the right. Be careful!

This mushroom disproves the Italian immigrant tradition that any mushroom that grows on wood is edible. In North America, and probably most parts of the world, this is definitely not true! Another major exception to this is the Jack-O-Lantern mushroom, Omphalotus olearius, which is not deadly, but gives such violent gastrointestinal symptoms that is makes you wish you were dead.....
John Rippon has told me of several such cases of Italian immigrant poisonings in the Chicago area while he was a professor there.

largest Galerina I've ever seenThere are many other species of Galerina throughout the world. Galerina species have been found on all continents except Antarctica. Rolf Singer (The Agaricales in Modern Taxonomy, 1986) recognized 169 species, and he expected there to be more species discovered in Asia and Africa. In North America, the highest species diversity of Galerina I have seen has been in the Pacific Northwest, along the Pacific coast from northern California to Alaska. There see to be Galerina fruiting bodies *everywhere* out there, especially on moss-covered logs. Most of the species are much smaller than G. autumnalis in our area. To the right is a particularly large cluster of Galerina we found several years ago in Wisconsin. You could easily mistake this cluster for Armillaria if you didn't pay attention to the spore print or the gill color. The stipes of these specimens were about 4 inches tall and the caps were about 2 inches across.

I hope you enjoyed learning something about Galerina today. It's a common little deadly mushroom that every mycophagist (mushroom eater) should know about.

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