The first edibles of the 2014 season are in (and they’re not morels…)

This year’s morel season has been a bust for everyone, as far as we know here at the Arizona Mushroom Forum.  Over the past six weeks, I have searched everywhere– from the Verde Valley under cottonwoods, to scorched areas of ponderosa forest from last summer’s controlled burns near Williams and Greer, to the higher elevations of the Mogollon Rim and the slopes of Mt. Baldy– without a single morel find.  Way too dry and warm over the the past winter, it would seem.  Better luck next year.

Coprinopsis atramentaria from the Verde Valley

(Mike Dechter)

However, a few edibles are starting to appear.  Mike Dechter of the US Forest Service in Flagstaff recently sent pictures of a couple of fruitings he recently discovered, one in the Verde Valley in sandy soil along a streamside, and one under aspen on an irrigated lawn in Flagstaff.  He identifies these as Inky Caps, Coprinopsis atramentaria (formerly Coprinus atramentarius), and from the photos I see no reason to dispute this. Mike thus gets to claim the honor of the first new edibles submitted to this website from Arizona in 2014.  (I note that the same species was found earlier in Cottonwood by Terri Clements and Donna Fulton, and submitted to Mushroom Observer on 3/6/2014, along with some gorgeous, bug-free Agaricus bitorquis from the same area that they submitted to Mushroom Observer on 3/2/2014.)

Coprinopsis atramentaria under aspen in Flagstaf May 2014

(Mike Dechter)

The species name for C. atramentaria comes from “atramentum”, the Latin word for ink. Like its relative the Shaggy Mane (Coprinus comatus), it produces an inky black liquid as it deliquesces at the end of its short life cycle, and this substance was formerly used for writing ink in the days of quill pens and parchment. It is a very common and widely distributed species, adaptable to a variety of environmental conditions. It is characterized by a medium-sized, conical or bell-shaped, gray or grayish-brown cap with furrow lines radiating all the way to the margins.  The stipe is white and rather fibrous. Only an indistinct remnant of a ring is typically seen, lying low on the stipe.  Gills are free, and appear grayish when young, becoming darker and browner with age.  Spore print is dark brown.  It grows saprophytically in clusters in grass or on wood debris.

The species is also known as the “Tippler’s Bane”, because while it is a good-tasting and safe edible in most circumstances, it can induce some very significant adverse reactions if consumed with alcohol. It contains a compound known as coprine, which interferes with the enzyme acetaldehyde dehydrogenase that catalyzes the second step in the metabolic pathway that breaks down alcohol in the body. Excessive acetaldehyde therefore accumulates in the bloodstream instead of being metabolized further into acetic acid. Acetaldehyde is the substance responsible for most of the unpleasant sensations the morning after immoderate alcohol consumption.

Coprine and the acetaldehyde that it makes your body accumulate thus give you, in effect, the most titanic and miserable hangover you ever had. It may last three to five days, with symptoms of nausea, vomiting, palpitations, flushing, malaise and agitation.  (A related substance, disulfiram or Antabuse, is used medically to help treat alcoholism via the negative reinforcement these symptoms inflict on a backsliding drinker.)  These highly distressing reactions can occur if alcohol is consumed up to three full days after eating a meal of C. atrimentaria. They do not typically cause any permanent harm, but can occasionally require hospital treatment for dehydration, hypotension, or cardiac arrhythmia, as well as the psychological agitation.

In addition to the Inky Cap and its other close relatives in the genus Coprinopsis, the toxic coprine compound may also be found in the Mica Cap, Coprinellus micacea, but it does not occur in the more distantly related Shaggy Mane, Coprinus comatus.  One European bolete, the so-called Brawny Bolete Boletus torosus, is also said to contain the substance.  No one should eat the Inky Cap, Mica Cap, or other potentially coprine-containing mushrooms without taking care to avoid alcoholic drinks for a day before and several days after.


About Christopher May

Chris is a radiologist in private practice in Scottsdale. He is married to Barbara May, with two grown children, Megan and Nick.
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