This is why urban gleaning, while fun and rewarding, requires a clear head and a little homework. Ya gotta know what you’re picking. Your life depends on it.
“An 82-year-old Santa Barbara man is dead after eating wild mushrooms he picked and sauteed with a steak,” we read in today’s San Francisco Chronicle. “The man, whose name is being withheld, died March 5 at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital. The man had picked poisonous amanita ocreata mushrooms, which are common in the Santa Barbara area, at the Douglas Family Preserve above Arroyo Burro Beach.His family says he sauteed the mushrooms and ate them with a steak. About six hours later, he became seriously ill and was hospitalized.”
Most foragables, especially the domestic varieties, are easy to identify: apples, lemons, plums. Wild plants are harder. Although blackberries are pretty unmistakable, smooth round berries in various colors could be any number of things, some of them lethal. Of all foragables, mushrooms are the most problematic. Too many varieties look too similar, so every year we see a steady stream of stories like this one. Just two months ago, the Chronicle reported on three members of a Bay Area family — a grandmother and two preteen boys — that had been hospitalized after harvesting and eating amanita phalloida (aka “death cap”) mushrooms, a sister species to the kind that killed the Santa Barbara octogenarian. The preteen boys were expected to need liver transplants.
“Even connoisseurs can be duped by the way a death cap presents itself,” reads the story. “The toadstool with white spores is common in the Bay Area, but the color varies and can be affected by weather and odd growing conditions. Its telltale signs are often buried in soil.”
Walking on the beach near her Alabama home last October, Debbie Harris found a small piece of partly melted metal. It was the emblem of a US Navy fighter squadron, and it had once belonged to Commander Robert Nicholls Glasgow, a Blue Angels pilot whose plane had crashed in the area almost exactly fifty years before. Bringing her find — which was probably once part of a cigarette lighter — to the National Museum of Naval Aviation, she met museum director Bob Rasmussen, a retired Navy captain and former Blue Angel himself. In fact, Rasmussen had been flying with Glasgow the very morning of the latter’s fatal crash. Small world, eh? But the coincidences got even deeper. Last month, Debbie Harris found yet another relic on that same beach: Glasglow’s dog tag, his name clearly visible despite fire damage. The day she found it, February 17, was Glasgow’s birthday.
During an orientation flight in October 1958, something went awry and Glasgow’s plane crashed into a vacant house at Fort Morgan, near Mobile. Newspaper articles at the time reported that he had a wife and four children. Harris, the beachcomber, is searching for his descendants, to whom she would like to give her finds.
“I was walking along there and looked down and I saw this and went, ‘Um, oh my gosh,’ ” Harris told an AP reporter. ”It was like one of those magical moments. I stood there and the sun was setting and I held this in my hand and I said, ‘No one has touched this since it was around his neck, and I’m touching it.’ It was real emotional.”