LITTLETON, N.H. - It has been a banner year for wild mushrooms in the northeast, thanks to Hurricane Irene and heavy autumn rains. While that has delighted foragers, it has also led to a surge in poisonings.
There were 63 reported mushroom poisonings in September in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, more than double the 28 reported during the same month last year, according to the Northern New England Poison Center.
The increase was even more dramatic in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, where there were 45 calls about poisonings in September 2011 against just 5 reports in September 2010, according to Colleen Connolly, spokeswoman for Children's Hospital Boston, which runs the two-state poison center.
"A lot of people who didn't really notice mushrooms before have," said Kathie Hodge, a mycologist at Cornell University, who said this year was the best for wild mushrooms in a decade.
"The more mushrooms that are out there, the more problems we'll have," she said.
People with little experience identifying mushrooms can be sickened by picking and eating poisonous varieties that resemble common edible mushrooms, said Karen Simone, director of the Portland, Maine-based poison center.
For example, wild porcini mushrooms are sometimes confused with poisonous Lilac Brown Boletes, and people who think they are picking edible chanterelles occasionally harvest toxic Jack-o'-lantern fungi instead, experts said.
"There are a lot of people who are amateur foragers who don't really keep up, and they still go out and forage and serve these mushrooms," Simone said.
Even an experienced forager sickened himself and three guests this year after serving an omelet made with poisonous mushrooms, authorities said.
The center recorded one possible death due to mushroom poisoning center this year. Symptoms of mushroom poisoning include diarrhea, severe abdominal pain and vomiting. Some types of poisonous mushrooms can cause permanent liver damage.
While young children and dogs are sometimes poisoned seeking a wild snack and teenagers are occasionally sickened while pursuing a hallucinogenic trip, ignorance among adults was a major factor in the spike.
"We had a case where a gentleman was making pizza and walked out in his backyard and said, 'Those mushrooms look good' and picked them and put them on his pizza," Simone said.
"That's just an utter lack of knowledge and respect for mushrooms," she said.
People who suspect they have eaten a poisonous mushroom can call the national poison center hotline at 1-800-222-1222.
For the most part, experienced foragers know how to stay safe and have been thrilled by this year's abundance, feasting on crops from beefsteaks to black trumpets to hen-of-the-woods.
"You'd just go out in the woods and there would be hundreds and hundreds of fruiting bodies carpeting the floor of the forest," said Noah Siegel, president of the Monadnock Mushrooms Unlimited, a club of 150 mushroom hunters based in Keene, New Hampshire.
Russ Cohen, a member of the Boston Mycological Club who teaches classes on edible plants and mushrooming, said this year was the best in at least two decades for woodlands fungi.
He said he often goes years without finding a cauliflower mushroom, one of his favorites for what he described as their "mushroomy egg noodle" flavor.
He found eight of the specimens, which look like a mass of noodles, growing at the base of pine trees this year, he said.
"Irene was just the final table-setter for very good conditions, but they began in mid-August and continued through now," Cohen said.
"It gave the ground a really good soaking at just the right time to trigger the blooming of lots of mushroom species I don't normally see," he said.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Ellen Wulfhorst and David Bailey)