Mushrooms within the genus Amanita are some of the most esthetically pleasing species of fungi that grow from the forest floor. They are however, to be respected. There are around 600 species of Amanita that can be found all over this incredible planet, though, this is only a mere sliver of Earth’s total fungal diversity. Keeping in mind the staggering 5.1 million species of fungi, it’s crazy to realize that this genus accounts for nearly 95% of the mushroom associated fatalities. Besides dying from eating the wrong Amanita, you can also be induced into powerful, mind altering hallucinations. Needless to say, this genus deserves respect.
There are however delightfully delicious amanitas that are edible more than once! Take today’s featured fungus, Amanita caesarea for example. This bright colored mushroom is as tasty as it is beautiful. Now, A. caesarea can be found in Southern Europe, Western Asia and the northern most parts of Africa, yet there are several very closely related species that we are taxonomically unraveling to this day. For example, the closely resembling American version of this fungus is called Amanita jacksonii. Some of these forest floor inhabitants don’t have their own scientific name yet, and are simply identified as an Amanita from the section Caesarea (Amanita sect. Caesarea).
Like most other mushrooms from the genus, A. caesarea ‘hatches’ from an egg like structure known as a universal veil. This veil surrounds the entire developing fruiting body, protecting it from the elements and mycophagous insects. When my father visited his hometown in Sicily a few years back, he went foraging with his cousins and brother. Of course, they were on the lookout for porcinis (Boletus edulis) but his one cousin had a special interest in A. caesarea. Not only the developed mushroom, but the immature egg-like stage of the species aptly named ovolo (egg in Italian is uovo). He ended up finding some, excitingly announcing “Guarda, ovolo!” which means Look ovolo!
His excitement is not only shared with many people who live in areas where the species occurs, but with Roman royalty too. You see, the species name references the Roman emperor Claudius (Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus). Claudius treasured the fungus so much, that many foragers would send their bounty to the capitol as gifts to the emperor. His love for the fungus may have convolutedly contributed to his downfall. Apparently, he was poisoned by his wife Agrippina, who has fed him a dish of A. caesarea that was laced with the closely related, devastatingly poisonous species Amanita phalloides, also known as the death cap. If he didn’t like taste of A. caesarea so much then…who are we kidding, she would have killed him with something else.
It is no surprise that my father and his crew found several fruiting bodies of A. caesarea in an oak dominated forest, since the species forms an ectomycorrhizal relationship with such trees, as well as some conifers. Similar to many Amanita species, A. caesarea has followed an evolutionary trajectory away from its saprophytic ancestors. Over time, A. caesarea has paired with tree symbionts, and has lost the ability to break down recalcitrant carbon like the carbon found in dead wood. Once an Amanita steps on the mycorrhizal path, it essentially can’t revert back to an independent lifestyle because it lacks the enzymatic ability to feed itself. So, the mushroom here lives among the roots of suitable trees where it trades soil nutrients for plant sugars. If we are lucky, these beautiful species can then feed us. When my father’s group got back from their forest floor excursion, the immature egg-like mushrooms where sliced thin, topped with good olive oil and salt, and eaten raw with some fresh bread. Now THAT is a bucket list species for me!