Poisonous Mushrooms

Vancouver Island & British Columbia's Deadliest Mushrooms

Vancouver Island has a few different types of poisonous mushrooms, including the dangerous death cap, Amanita phalloides. Deadly poisonous mushrooms are relatively rare, but poisonings have still increased year-over-year since 2017. So if you want to forage for mushrooms, or you're just concerned about what's growing in your garden, this page has will help you learn more about the varieties of dangerous mushrooms found on Vancouver Island and in British Columbia.

Note: This page primarily focuses on a few of the most deadly poisonous mushrooms found in BC. There are many more mushrooms with varying degrees of toxicity, and others that can cause severe illness, so do not treat this page as complete and practice care with all identifications.

In case of a suspected poisoning, call the BC Drug & Poison Info Centre at 1-800-567-8911

Identification guide for Death Cap mushrooms, Amanita phalloides
Death Cap Identification Guide. Original Image: Wikimedia Commons

Death Cap - Amanita phalloides

Death cap mushrooms are a highly poisonous invasive mushroom species that were brought to western British Columbia with imported varieties of decorative hardwood trees, like hornbeams.

On Vancouver Island, death cap mushrooms are most likely to be found in the Oak Bay area.

Death cap mushrooms usually appear in urban areas including parks, boulevards, and other landscaped areas. They appear in the summer, but mostly in the fall after heavy rains.

The range of death cap mushrooms in British Columbia is expected to spread. Since their arrival, these deadly mushrooms have also made the move to local varieties of oak.

Removing death cap mushrooms will not remove the fungus, which will persist in the ground.

Death caps are harmless if left alone, but if you are concerned about their presence then pick them, place them in a bag, and dispose in the trash.

Death cap mushrooms are not dangerous to touch.

Identifying Death Cap Mushrooms

When identifying death cap mushrooms, all features or characteristics should be considered. It's also important to note that any one feature could be missing, so treat any mushroom that meets only some of these criteria as a death cap, just to be safe.

To identify a death cap mushroom, look for the following features:

  • Overall pale colour, with cap varying from white, to pale yellow-green, to light brown.

  • Cap has a slightly metallic sheen when dry and is slightly sticky when moist

  • A veil skirt hanging from the stem

  • A "cup" around the base of the stem, often underground

  • Looks like a small white or pale green "egg" when young

Another important aspect of death cap identification is location. Death cap mushrooms are associated with decorative and imported hardwood trees in urban areas. They area also found with oak trees in the south Vancouver Island and Vancouver areas.

Three death cap mushrooms showing identifying features

Above: Three death cap mushrooms. Note the intact volva and mostly absent veil.

Two young death cap mushrooms

Risk of Death Cap Poisoning in BC

Despite the increasing media attention, and some advisories to "keep your distance", it's important not to become overly paranoid about death cap mushrooms. They will not follow you home and attack you. Death caps have to be placed in your mouth to encounter any substantial risk, so just don't do that.

However, young children and pets may not know better. Pets especially may be attracted by the slight sickly-sweet smell of death caps. Furthermore, death cap mushrooms have been mistaken for Asian straw mushrooms, like Volvariella volvacea, or puffballs when very young.

Symptoms of eating death cap mushrooms include cramping, vomiting, and diarrhea within 12 hours of ingestion. If you suspect that you've eaten a death cap, go to an emergency room with a sample of the mushroom. Do this even if your symptoms subside!

Left: Most death caps first emerge as a pale green egg surrounded by a white veil covering.

What happens if you touch a death cap mushroom?

Death cap mushrooms are safe to touch. The poisonous amatoxin in death cap mushrooms begins to affect the body 6 to 12 hours after it is ingested. In general, you cannot get poisoned from touching any mushroom. There is only one species of mushroom in the world that is suspected of being toxic to the touch: the poison fire coral fungus in Australia.

How do death caps kill you?

Death cap mushrooms kill by causing liver and kidney dysfunction, which can result in death by hypoglycemic shock within 4-7 days of the first symptoms. When you eat a death cap, the amatoxins in the mushroom disrupt protein synthesis in the body, causing cells to die. If you eat a death cap mushroom, you can expect the first symptoms of amatoxin poisoning to show within 6 to 12 hours. After that, death cap poisoning has three stages.

Stage 1: Early symptoms. Stomach pain, vomiting, nausea, and diarrhea.

Stage 2: Remission. Victims experience a false recovery for 2 to 3 days.

Stage 3: Symptoms return. Jaundice, renal failure, and hypoglycemia (low blood-sugar). Convulsions, coma, and death can follow.

A handful of death cap mushrooms

How long does it take to die from a death cap?

Death cap poisoning can kill within 4 days of ingestion. This time will vary depending on how much is ingested, and the body mass of the victim. However, with prompt and intensive care, most victims of death cap poisoning can expect to survive.

Can you survive eating a death cap?

The survival rate for eating a death cap mushroom is 95% (Source). However, this is achieved with early and intensive treatment available mostly in developed countries. Children, or those with lower body mass are at greater risk. In severe cases, liver transplants are needed to save a victim of death cap poisoning.

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Pholiotina rugosa / Conocybe filaris

A small mushroom with a smooth, faintly striate brown cap. Appears from the spring, through the summer, on nutrient rich substrates (like damp wood chips).

Stem: Smooth to slightly fibrous. Colour is deep orange-brown, to cream and almost white at the top.

Usually has a moveable ring on the stipe, although this can fall away easily.

Spores: Rusty brown.

This mushroom represents a complex of closely related and difficult to distinguish species. Extra care should be taken not to confuse this mushroom with wavy cap magic mushrooms (Psilocybe cyanescens).

Although Pholiotina rugosa are usually tall, with an orange stipe (easy to distinguish from wavy caps), they do sometimes appear with a pale stipe and a more squat appearance (see right).

Two specimens of Pholiotina rugosa (also known as Conocybe filaris). Original image sources: Here and Here.

Smith's Amanita - Amanita smithiana

Smith's Amanita mushroom. Poisonous lookalike of matsutake and pine mushrooms.
Above: Smith's Amanita, Amanita smithiana. Image source.

Smith's amanita is a tall white mushroom appearing in conifer forests from August through to October.

While not as toxic as the death cap mushroom, Smith's amanita can cause kidney damage and renal failure, sometimes requiring treatment for weeks in order to fully recover.

Symptoms of Smith's amanita poisoning develop within hours of ingestion, and include nausea, vomiting, gastric pain, and diarrhea, among others.

Identifying Features

These mushrooms are often solitary, or in small groups. They are overall white, including their spores, and have a smell that varies between mild and unpleasant.

When young, their surface, and especially the edge of the cap, is covered in cottony veil remnants.

However, rain can wash these woolly pieces away, leaving behind a smooth cap and stipe that more closely resembles the edible mushroom that Smith's amanita is most often mistaken for: pine or matsutake mushrooms.

Read more about the relationship between Smith's amanita and pine or matsutake mushrooms.

Smith's amanita also resemble the closely related Amanita silvicola.

Deadly Galerina - Galerina marginata

Galerina marginata (also known as the "deadly galerina", "funeral bell" or "deadly skullcap") is a small amber-brown mushroom that commonly grows on dead conifer wood.

This mushroom is deadly poisonous, containing the same amatoxins as death caps, which can survive cooking and cause acute liver damage.

Deadly galerina are sometimes mistaken for some varieties of edible honey mushrooms (Armillaria spp.). Honey mushrooms tend to be larger, and have white spores, but extreme caution should be taken.

Furthermore, deadly galerina mushrooms appear almost identical to another edible species: Kuehneromyces mutabilis (synonimous with Pholiota mutabilis) aka the "sheathed woodtuft", "brown-stew fungus", or "two-toned pholiota".

As such, it's probably best to avoid small, brown, wood-growing mushrooms entirely.

Above: Deadly Galerina, Galerina marginata. Image Source.

Deadly Galerina (Galerina marginata) Identifying Features:

  • Orange-brown caps, variously described as "amber", "honey", "cinnamon", and so on.

  • Cap texture is smooth and matte when young. Appears slightly sticky or shiny when young and in moist conditions.

  • Hygrophanous - the cap changes colour as it dries, becoming pale.

  • Rust-brown spore print.

  • Stature is generally small, and caps are domed when young.

  • Stipe appears fibrous. Pale when young (almost white) and darkening with age.

  • No significant bruising reaction.

  • Grows on decaying conifer wood, including wood chips, old planks, stumps, and logs.

About Deadly Galerina Mushrooms

Galerina marginata is a widespread mushroom species, occurring in many parts of the world. These mushrooms were once classified as 5 separate species: G. autumnalis, G. oregonensis, G, unicolor, and G. venenata, along with G. marginata. However, after DNA analysis, these 5 species were combined in 2001.

Galerina marginata is a potential lookalike to various psilocybe containing mushrooms, like Psilocybe cyanescens. The two most important characteristics that distinguish psilocybe-containing mushrooms from poisonous lookalikes are their bluing reaction, and dark purple spores.

Read more about identifying common psilocybe mushrooms on Vancouver Island.

Deadly Parasol - Lepiota subincarnata

Deadly parasol mushroom

Above: A young deadly parasol, Lepiota subincarnata. Image source.

The deadly parasol, Lepiota subincarnata (also known as L. josserandii) is a relatively small, white mushroom with a pink-brown veil covering the cap.

When the mushroom is young, the pink-brown layer is lighter and covers the cap more evenly, but as the mushroom opens and flattens it begins to darken, crack, and separate at the edge.

L. subincarnata is closely related to the deadly dapperling mushroom, L. brunneoincarnata, which is found in Europe and Asia.

These mushrooms can appear in gardens, lawns, and forests. At least one fatality has been recorded in BC, resulting from confusion with the edible fairy ring mushroom, Marasmius oreades.

The deadly parasol has white gills, white spores, and a smell that is described as sweet and fruity.

Other Toxic Mushrooms in British Columbia

Panther Cap, Amanita pantherinoides

Panther Cap - Amanita pantherinoides

Although toxic, panther cap mushrooms (Amanita pantherinoides) are not likely to cause death. However, they do, have intoxicating effects which lead some people to seek them out for consumption.

Panther cap poisoning - intentional or otherwise - is not recommended. Most accounts suggest that the experience is very unpleasant.

Panther cap mushrooms appear in the spring and throughout the summer, and are identifiable by their brown caps with white veil remnants or "spots". Because of this, they look similar to their famous relative, the fly agaric or Amanita muscaria (see below).

Panther cap buttons are quite common on the forest floors of Vancouver Island after heavy rains.

Panther caps are sometimes referred to as Amanita pantherina, but recent research indicates that our local variety is distinct, hence pantherinoides or "panther-like".

Read here for a record of known poisonings.

Fly Agaric - Amanita muscaria

Fly agarics are some of the most beautiful and recognizable mushrooms on Earth, and (usually) a welcome sight wherever they appear.

While their red colouring is most well-known, they can also appear in yellow, orange, and even white variations.

While some seek out fly agarics for their psychoactive effects (due to the presence of ibotenic acid), side effects of muscarine poisoning include profuse sweating, salivation, and crying, as well as blurred vision, nausea, stomach pains, vomiting, difficulty breathing, low blood pressure, and diarrhea.

Fly agaric toadstool mushroom

Above: A fly agaric mushroom button.

How to Avoid Poisonous Mushrooms

There are no mushrooms in BC that are toxic to the touch. As such, you have to eat a mushroom to be poisoned by it. So, to be 100% safe, just don't eat mushrooms.

However, if you're intent on eating some mushrooms, follow these rules to minimize the risk:

  • If in doubt - don't eat it!

  • Don't forage in urban areas.

  • Don't forage (or practice extra caution with) white-gilled or magic mushrooms. These are the most likely to have deadly poisonous lookalikes.

  • Consult an expert.

  • If you do consume a foraged mushroom, eat only a small amount at first, save a sample of the eaten mushroom, and wait.

  • Don't get over-confident. There's more that you don't know you don't know than you know.

Touching Poisonous Mushrooms

There are no mushrooms in British Columbia that are poisonous to touch. According to our best current knowledge, a toxic mushroom can only poison you if you ingest it. That is why your primary concern with mushrooms like the death cap is to avoid accidentally eating one. So, it is safe to handle dangerous mushrooms. Just wash your hands afterwards to be safe.

Questions About Poisonous Mushrooms

Are there poisonous mushrooms in British Columbia?

There are a few poisonous mushrooms in British Columbia. Altogether, roughly 2% of all mushrooms in North America are considered deadly poisonous. Some of the most dangerous, like death caps (Amanita phalloides), Smith's amanita (Amanita smithiana), and deadly galerina (Galerina marginata), are found in British Columbia.

However, many more "poisonings" occur due to improper preparation, allergies, and individual sensitivities, and the physical practice of foraging itself claims far more victims than the mushrooms themselves.

How can you tell if a mushroom is poisonous?

The best way to tell if a mushroom is poisonous is by positively identifying it. Use a detailed and up-to-date guide, pay attention to all identifying features, and consult an expert. Unfortunately, there are no identifying features shared by all poisonous mushrooms. Avoiding white-gilled and "little brown" mushrooms will eliminate a few of the more common poisonous mushrooms. Also make sure to avoid bug-eaten or rotten mushrooms, or those that have grown in potentially contaminated areas (like parking lots).

How do you identify a poisonous mushroom?

To identify a poisonous mushroom, use a detailed and up-to-date mushroom identification book. Match all of the identifying characteristics listed in the book with the specimen that you're identifying. Don't just rely on pictures or general appearance. Make sure to pay attention to texture, smell, gills, and spore colour.

What happens if you touch a poisonous mushroom?

In North America, there are no mushrooms which are toxic to handle. The majority of experts will recommend care when handling mushrooms, but poisonous mushrooms need to be ingested in order to have an affect. So, if you touch a poisonous mushroom, it is likely that nothing will happen. In other words, all mushrooms in North America are safe to touch.

What is the most deadly mushroom?

Death cap mushrooms (Amanita phalloides) are the deadliest mushroom because they account for most mushroom-poisoning deaths worldwide. A 50 gram dose of A. phalloides can be fatal, corresponding roughly to a 21 milligram dose of amatoxin (Kleiner, 2018). Lethal doses of amatoxin can be as low as 0.1 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. As such, children and pets are especially susceptible (Durand & Valla, 2013). Amanita phalloides also contain phallotoxins (phalloidin), and virotoxins.

What do you do if you eat a poisonous mushroom?

If you eat a poisonous mushroom (or you suspect that you have), then you should take the following steps:

  1. Collect a sample of the mushroom that you've eaten

  2. Go to an emergency room with the poisonous mushroom sample

Timely care can be crucial to dealing with a mushroom poisoning, so action should be taken quickly. If you've eaten a mushroom that's widely considered to be edible, and you're experiencing symptoms of poisoning (gastro-intestinal distress, etc.) then visit a doctor or clinic anyway, or call the Drug & Poison Info Centre at 1-800-567-8911 if you're in British Columbia.

What is a poisonous mushroom called?

Poisonous mushrooms are sometimes called "toadstools". The word "toadstool" also refers to the visible fruiting body of a fungus. For most mushrooms, this part consists of a stalk (or "stipe") with a cap on top.

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List Of Poisonous Mushrooms On Vancouver Island

Other Dangerous Mushrooms:

  • Panther Cap - Amanita pantherina

  • Fly Agaric - Amanita muscaria

Note: This list is not complete