Shaggy Manes and Inky Caps - Mushrooms, Uses and Health Effects
Inky caps are a group of mushrooms that have an unusual method of distributing their spores. The mushroom of an inky cap digests its own gills. The gills are located under the cap of the mushroom and bear the reproductive spores of the fungus. As autodigestion takes place, the gills and cap change into a black, gooey liquid. The mushroom's spores aren't digested, however. The disintegration of the mushroom cap exposes the spores to air currents, enabling them to be carried to new areas.
Inky caps are interesting to observe, especially as their appearance changes dramatically during autodigestion. A few types are collected for food. However, some members of the inky cap group contain a chemical called coprine, which greatly increases the unpleasant effects of alcohol ingestion. Coprine produces similar effects to disulfiram (trade name Antabuse), a medication given to alcoholics to increase their sensitivity to alcohol and encourage abstinence.
Two common inky cap mushrooms in North America are Coprinus comatus, which is known as the shaggy mane, shaggy inky cap or lawyer's wig, and Coprinopsis atramentaria, also known as the common inky cap, tippler's bane or alcohol inky. Both mushrooms are edible, but the common inky cap contains coprine. Alcohol should be avoided before and after eating common inky caps.
In 1820, English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote the lines below in his poem "The Sensitive Plant". They appear just after a stanza about other fungi and are commonly believed to be a description of a shaggy mane mushroom undergoing autodigestion. According to the University of Adelaide, the lines were omitted from later versions of the poem.
Their mass rotted off them flake by flake,
Till the thick stalk stuck like a murderer's stake,
Where rags of loose flesh yet tremble on high,
Infecting the winds that wander by.
Shaggy Mane Mushroom Time Lapse Video
The Shaggy Mane - Coprinus comatus
As in all fungi that produce mushrooms, the body of the shaggy mane mushroom consists of thread-like structures called hyphae that are hidden in the mushroom's substrate. The branching hyphae form a mass known as a mycelium. The mycelium produces aerial mushrooms to distribute the reproductive spores of the fungus.
Fungi belong to their own kingdom. A "kingdom" is a major division in the classification system used for living things. Unlike plants, which belong to a different kingdom, fungi don't contain chlorophyll and can't produce their food by photosynthesis. Instead, they secrete digestive enzymes into their food source and then absorb the products of the digestion.
Some fungi are more active than others in their effort to get food. Nematophagous fungi immobilize, kill and digest tiny worms called nematodes that live in the soil. Researchers have discovered that Coprinus comatus is nematophagous.
The shaggy mane mushroom is roughly cylindrical in shape and is white or cream in color. The tip of the mushroom is generally brown. The cap is covered by cream or tan scales that are upturned. The scales make the mushroom look somewhat like a traditional lawyer's wig and give it one of its common names. The gills under the cap are white at first but gradually turn grey and then black. A ring of tissue called an annulus surrounds the stem of the mushroom.
The mushroom doesn't open to form the typical umbrella shape of grocery store mushrooms until it begins autodigestion, turning black as it does so. It begins to digest itself in as little as twenty four hours after its first appearance. Enzymes called chitinases break down the chitin providing strength to the cell walls in the gills and cap, which destroys the cells In these areas.
Autodigestion begins at the edge of the cap and proceeds inwards. The cap opens and the edge curls upward as digestion takes place, exposing successive layers of spores to air currents. The gills are tightly packed, so their digestion helps to free the spores. In some inky cap mushrooms, deliquescence or liquefaction of the cap is complete, while in others it's only partial.
The production of an inky liquid is not the shaggy mane's only claim to fame. When there is enough moisture in the environment, a new shaggy mane mushroom may grow with such force that it can break through old asphalt and concrete.
Distribution and Habitat
The shaggy mane is found in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. The mushroom is versatile and appears in bare soil, grass, areas with gravel and disturbed areas beside roads. It commonly appears in the fall.
Uses of Shaggy Mane Mushrooms
Despite its strange behavior, the shaggy mane is both edible and pleasantly flavored. Collecting wild mushrooms to eat can be dangerous, since many are poisonous. A mistake in identification can be deadly. However, mushroom experts say that the shaggy mane has a distinctive appearance and is easily identified. It would be a good idea to check with an experienced mushroom forager before picking and eating shaggy manes for the first time, though.
The mushrooms should be collected from an unpolluted area while they are still in excellent condition. They will start turning into ink just a few hours after being picked. Refrigeration slows this process down only slightly. The ink isn't dangerous to eat, but it doesn't taste very good. Some mushrooms should be left unpicked so that they can release their spores into the environment.
In addition to being eaten, shaggy manes are used to make a dye. If the mushrooms are heated in water in an iron pot, an olive green dye is produced. In a solution containing ammonia, a grey green dye is produced. The dye can be used to color wool, fabric and paper.
Picking and Cooking Shaggy Mane Mushrooms
The Common Inky Cap - Coprinopsis atramentaria
The common inky cap mushroom is bell shaped and has a striated surface on its cap. The cap is light grey or buff in color and has a ragged or pleated edge. As in the shaggy mane, the gills are white at first and then to turn to grey and finally to black. Also as in the shaggy mane, the cap doesn't open up into an umbrella shape until autodigestion begins.
The scientific name of the common inky cap is Coprinopsis atramentaria. It's found in North America, Europe and other parts of the world. It's not as distinctive or as easily identified as the shaggy mane, until it turns to ink. The mushroom appears in the fall and grows in soil and grassy areas, in areas where wood is decaying and on disturbed land. Like the shaggy mane, the common inky cap has been known to push through asphalt as it grows.
The common inky cap mushroom is edible, but unlike the shaggy mane it contains coprine. Alternate and very appropriate names for the mushroom are tippler's bane and alcohol inky. Consuming alcohol before or after eating common inky caps produces very unpleasant effects.
Common Inky Cap or Alcohol Inky
Common Inky Caps, Coprine and Alcohol Sensitivity
Coprine is considered to be a mycotoxin - a toxin that comes from a fungus. The combination of common inky caps and alcohol produces unpleasant symptoms but doesn't seem to be dangerous. Recovery is apparently complete, although it's possible that secondary effects could be serious. There has been at least one report of an esophageal rupture due to excessive vomiting after consuming common inky caps and alcohol.
Symptoms of coprine toxicity include:
- flushed skin and a warm sensation
- rapid heartbeat and palpitations
- a tingling sensation in the arms and legs
- a metallic taste in the mouth
Coprine produces its effects on alcohol metabolism if the alcohol is consumed after common inky caps are eaten. There are reports that the effects can appear if alcohol is drunk up to five days after eating the mushrooms. Coprine may also affect the body if ingested shortly before alcohol consumption. Coprine ingestion without alcohol seems to be safe, however.
In normal alcohol metabolism, the body converts the alcohol to acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is responsible for most of the symptoms of a hangover. An enzyme called acetaldehyde dehydrogenase converts the acetaldehyde to relatively harmless acetate and carbon dioxide. Coprine stops acetaldehyde breakdown, thereby intensifying and prolonging the effects of alcohol ingestion.
A Time Lapse Video of Shaggy Mane Inky Caps That Have Been Picked
Wild Mushroom Foraging
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Disulfiram or Antabuse, Coprine and Alcoholism
Disulfiram is a chemical given to alcoholics to deliberately increase the unpleasant symptoms of alcohol consumption. The strategy is designed to encourage the reluctance to drink alcohol. At one time it was thought that coprine might be a good substitute for disulfiram in treating alcoholism. However, this idea was given up when an experiment with dogs showed that coprine damaged reproductive organs and caused sterility in males. The coprine needed to be ingested in large amounts to cause these effects, however.
Dusulfiram is marketed with the trade name of Antabuse or Antabus. It has a different chemical structure from coprine, but like coprine it prevents acetaldehyde breakdown in the liver by inhibiting the acetaldehyde dehydrogenase enzyme. This increases a person's sensitivity to the negative effects of alcohol consumption.
Collecting Edible Wild Mushrooms
Inky cap mushrooms are a fascinating part of nature. Observing and photographing them is an enjoyable part of my autumn walks. I don't collect wild mushrooms for food, though. If you want to eat wild mushrooms, you should seek advice from an experienced wild mushroom forager. In addition, it's important to read more than one mushroom identity book and to look at lots of photos and videos in order to pick up plenty of identification clues. It's also important to collect only distinctive species of mushrooms that aren't easily confused with poisonous ones.
There are many dangerous mushrooms that can be mistaken for edible ones. All mushroom collectors need to be cautious, especially when they don't have access to the specialized equipment and techniques used by scientists in the identification of fungi. I'm content to admire and photograph wild mushrooms and to get my edible mushrooms from the grocery store. My local stores sell quite a wide variety of mushroom species, which satisfies my desire for different tastes.
© 2014 Linda Crampton
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