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Book Review

Amanitas of North America

Britt A. Bunyard and Jay Justice
The FUNGI Press. 2020.
Hardcover, 336 pages
ISBN 978-0-578-67572
$60.00 USD

 
Substantial changes have occurred in our understanding of Amanitas since the publication of David Jenkins’ 1986 book, Amanita of North America. The widespread use of DNA sequencing has brought many formerly cryptic species to light. A growing army of Amanita-focused amateur mycologists have steadily vouchered and documented their finds on websites like www.Mushroomobserver.org. And most of all, a retired Bell Labs engineer by the name of Rodham Tulloss has created a huge body of detailed work on the genus Amanita, available to all on his website, www.Amanitaceae.org. But it took authors Britt Bunyard and Jay Justice to gather and collate much of the most recent taxonomic knowledge about this fascinating genus, along with a wealth of Amanita-related topics, and present it in an easily accessible and attractive book form.

The heart and bulk of Amanitas of North America is dedicated to species descriptions. Information on a broad array of Amanita species was drawn from Tulloss’ webpages and other sources, as well as the direct experiences of the authors. Many fine photos of Amanitas were borrowed from a broad array of photographers, pulled from the file-sharing site Mushroomobserver.org and from the authors’ photo files.

Within this book, 120 Amanita species are described. Amanitas showcased range from Alaska to Mexico, along both coasts and throughout the heartland. Of that group of 120, 30 have not yet been formally published, the vast majority being Tulloss’ provisional names. These provisional concepts are subject to change prior to actual publication. For this reason, many mycologists prefer not to use provisional names at all. For example, the catch-all term Amanita “amerirubescens” described in the book refers to our evolving concept of eastern blushers, a group now thought to contain 9 separate species! Although the name “amerirubescens” is already widely (and prematurely, in my opinion) used in the amateur community, it will soon be retired.

The newly published Amanita amerivirosa (2021), one of several cryptic species of Eastern Destroying Angels, didn’t make it into this book, and shows how rapidly things are changing in the world of Amanita. Although one of my favorite Amanitas, Amanita regalis, the russet-brown-capped former A. muscaria variant found in Alaska and Sweden, was not described, odds are that YOUR favorite Amanita is, and no doubt quite a few that you have never heard of.

To facilitate finding species descriptions, the authors break their book into familiar and recognizable sections of Amanita. If you are not already familiar with Amanita sections, you might have a harder go of it. Although the authors provide a key to those sections on pg. 25, the first couplet requires knowing amyloidity, and that requires Melzer’s solution, something that most readers will not have on hand. But if you ignore that, you can probably find your section via macro-morph qualities.

Even those commonly understood sections, at least to us amateur amanitologists, are changing. A recent major paper by Cui (see addendum) reworks our entire concept of Amanita sections, all but eliminating section Lepidella, and replacing it with sections Strobiliformes and Roanokensis. According to Cui et al, the former section Lepidella is polyphyletic (deriving from several genetic lines) and must therefore be broken up. Only the saprobic Amanitas remain in Lepidella in the Cui revision. The proposal by Redhead et al in 2016 to rename these saprobic Amanitas as genus Saproamanita is gaining traction.

Call them what you will, the former Lepidellas, which are often large, white and similar looking primitive Amanita species, are a difficult group to identify. The authors provide a nice key to their identity under their old section name of Lepidella on pg.198; no matter their new section names, the species remain the same.

I was disappointed to see that other sections of Amanita did not receive the same treatment. Keys are highly useful when first starting out, and when one doesn’t really know a genus, as I suspect is true for most who will purchase this book. But if I had to pick only one key to do, I’d probably choose Lepidella as well.

Each section of Amanita as recognized by the authors has an introduction talking about general features of that section, and sometimes how the species within that section are organized. Species are not arranged in alphabetical order, so you’ll need to use the index to find your known Amanita. Section Amanita has species clustered with their lookalikes (muscaroids, pantherinoids) and close relatives. The description page for section Amidella includes an outdated reference to two former Amidellas now transferred to section Roanokensis: A. proxima and A. ovoidea, both European species. Blame (or thank) Cui for that one, too!

Described species have a bit of backstory preceding a more formal description. Followers of Tulloss may be shocked to hear the authors claim that just about every species pictured in this book can be identified without benefit of a microscope! Tulloss, of course, is known for his meticulous microscopy. A simple macro-morph ID may be possible in the case of classic examples, but we all know that mushrooms don’t always look like their best photos! But despite the authors’ protestations, bare microscopic details and Q-values (spore size and shape averages) are provided for most species, allowing readers to go deeper in their confirmation of an ID. I have observed co-author Jay Justice bent over his lab bench doing spore prints and scoping his Amanita finds at many forays, so perhaps he was the driving force for including micro data here. Commonly used lab chemicals like Melzer’s solutions (amyloid spores turn blue) and KOH (bright yellow in certain species in section Phalloideae) are discussed as ways to confirm and differentiate species.

A breadth of Amanita topics are covered, including almost anything even tangentially related to Amanitas. There is extensive information on Amanita toxicology, an illustrated guide to Amanita development, a history of men who worked on Amanita, and fungal Amanita parasites. The authors discuss trophic strategies of Amanitas and gravitropism, Amanita mycophagy, and amanita mythology. There are photos of mushrooms that kind of look like Amanitas, a brief treatment of Limacella (a close Amanita relative with a slime veil), and tales of lurid historical Amanita poisonings. In a know-your-audience nod, there are Amanitas as drugs and entheogens (including a sly segue to the Psilocybe shamanism of María Sabina), and a photograph reference to the Telluride Mushroom Festival, where people dress up as Amanitas and do entheogens.

This is a far cry from the rather short, stodgy, and taxonomically focused prior major Amanita book, Jenkin’s Amanita of North America! And the photos are way, way better. I’d almost call it FUNGI Mag in book form!

There is a nice section on how various Amanitas develop and expand beyond their universal veils, with fine illustrations by British mycologist Geoffrey Kibby. The peculiar behavior of Amanitas in captivity, which the authors call gravitropism, is discussed over several pages. Anyone who has left an Amanita lying on a table overnight has seen this phenomenon, where the cap continues to grow upwards and orients itself to line up with the earth, gills downward. This phenomenon is not unique to Amanitas, but Amanitas provide some of the most dramatic examples!

Toxicology information is by and large good and detailed. The most dangerous of the Amanita toxins are of course amatoxins. The authors go into great detail explaining the progression of and various treatments for these terrible poisonings.

I was pleased to see that the brand new, highly accurate spot test for amatoxin, Amatoxtest, developed by Candace Bever at the USDA, was given its own page in this book. The Amatoxtest was contrasted with the older, less accurate and rather fraught (concentrated HCl must be used) Meixner test. This new test, similar to a pregnancy test, can be performed using patient urine or rice-sized pieces of mushroom flesh, after the water-soluble amatoxins have been extracted in a small test tube. It should prove to be a big help in clinical settings, confirming an amatoxin poisoning long before liver values start to rise. It is already being used in veterinary clinics across the country.

I was happy to see the authors state that the hemolysins found in Amanita rubescens and its relatives are not toxic orally, due to their rapid breakdown at temperatures between 90-100 degrees F and at low pH, conditions found within our own bellies! This was not widely accepted back in 2016, when I gave an Amanita toxin talk to NAMA, attended by both Bunyard and Tulloss. Many have been encouraged to cook all blushers well to destroy these toxins, but that might just be overkill with a side of paranoia. There has never been a recorded poisoning with blushers, despite their being a common edible all over the world. Surely someone, somewhere, has “undercooked” a blusher, or even eaten them as ceviche.

There were a few errors in their toxicology information, which I detail here. Phalloidins, one of the deadly toxins found in Death Caps and Destroying Angels, were incorrectly said to not be toxic when injected (pg. 39); there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. It is true that phalloidins are not toxic orally, and the authors agree (pg. 39). A little later, however (pg. 47), while discussing the clinical use of purified phalloidins in cancer research, they make the claim that phalloidins have “killed many humans throughout history;” perhaps they meant to say amatoxins, instead?

There is also no evidence that any North American Amanita other than Amanita smithiana contains allenic norleucine, a serious toxin that causes temporary kidney failure. Unlike the truly deadly mushroom toxin orellanine, allenic norleucine damages but does not destroy the kidneys, and the kidneys recover with time and medical support. Denis Benjamin, who consulted on the so-called deadly poisoning of two dogs with Amanita thiersii, told me that he could not verify their account, and thought that the case should be ignored. Many “Lepidellas” and Saproamanitas are eaten in other countries; A. thiersii is sold in markets in Mexico.

Several pages are dedicated to visual comparisons of deadly species of Amanitas to edible mushrooms like Leucoagaricus naucinus and Volvopluteus gloiocephalus (the Straw Mushroom). Some of the choice edible Western Amanita species are also visually compared to toxic and deadly lookalikes, a useful discernment if you are a North American Amanita eater! I am sure that the authors meant to contrast an edible Agaricus sp. with white, toxic members of Amanita section Phalloideae, but labeling Agaricus californicus non-toxic (pg. 20), despite it being a well-known member of the “Lose your Lunch Bunch,” was a definite oopsies.

Speaking of eating Amanitas, an entire chapter was dedicated to Amanita mycophagy, discussing how Amanita eating is common in other countries, and showing some of the species eaten here in North America. This may be shocking news to some, what with the generally dire public impressions of Amanitas. The authors do a good job of “normalizing” edible amanitas, and emphasize that proper identification is essential. The Eastern blushers (a multitude of unpublished but all edible species, lumped under the fast fading name “amerirubescens”) and the odd Amanita jacksonii, one of several Eastern slender Caesars, make up the bulk of species in Eastern Amanita mycophagy. Amanita eating is a far more common practice in the West, with three fat Caesar’s Amanitas (A. vernicoccora, A. calyptroderma and A. “cochiseana”) one blusher (Amanita novinupta) and one stellar grisette (A. velosa). These are all non-toxic Amanitas that need no special preparation.

Deliberately eating toxic Amanitas is something else again. A certain well-known American mycologist has been pushing the practice of eating Amanita muscaria as an edible since 2008. Sadly, his views are gaining traction, at least here in the West. The authors present a fairly reasonable critique of its use as an edible in their book, alongside a provocative photo of a measuring cup of A. muscaria slices, ripe for the boiling! Read the pros and cons of this practice (there are many online sources) and make up your own mind.

A final criticism: in their documentation of amanitology in North America today, the authors apparently chose to ignore a couple of prominent women amanitologists here in the West. Although the wonderful work of Dr. Cathy Cripps, a Rocky Mountain/alpine mycologist was featured, and she wrote a very generous forward that really served as an in-house review, the much-respected Western amanitologist Janet Lindgren was hardly mentioned. This despite the fact of her several amanita publications (Amanita novinupta, A. aprica, A. pruittii and A. alpinicola), her decades of work with both Tulloss and the PNW Key council, her fine work in Amanita toxicology, and her extensive online key to PNW/Western Amanitas. Her online Amanita key should have been included with other resources. Here it is now: https://www.svims.ca/council/Amanit.htm.

Another ignored source of some of the most popular Amanita pages on the web, created by your reviewer, can be found at: http://www.bayareamushrooms.org

But criticisms aside, there was a need for a modern guide to North American Amanitas. Self-published by FUNGI Press, Amanitas of North America is a fine addition to your coffee table collection of mushroom books. It’s flashy, it’s readable (with one caveat: the pages are oddly flimsy and do not hold up to serious browsing. I tore one page merely with a turning, and they easily ruche-up during serious ID use, with multiple piled sources. Perhaps this error can be fixed in future printings?), it’s (mostly) up to date, and it’s informative. Whether you are a novice or an old Amanita hand, you should find much to like in this book.

Kudos to Britt Bunyard and Jay Justice for creating a splendid new Amanita book for our modern age.

Addendum: The recent major work by Cui et al (2018) has dramatically changed how we look at Amanita sections. Rather than break Amanita into two subgenera, it is now broken up into three: Amanita/Amanitina/Lepidella. Subgenera Amanitina was first proposed by Redhead et al in their Saproamanita paper, and adopted by Cui. Since Lepidella as a section in the sense of Cui only contains the saprobic Amanitas, which Redhead and Vizzini reasonably proposed for a separate genus, Saproamanita, it is an easy segue to drop section Lepidella altogether.

All of the other former Lepidellas fall into two new sections: Roanokensis and Strobiliformes. Amanitas of North America was written prior to and during the publication of this important paper. It takes a while for changes to percolate through the mycological community and become common knowledge, so it is understandable that the authors used older sections of Amanita. This use may cause some modern confusion, but there is always scientific progress, and any book on mycology starts to become outdated the moment it leaves the press.

Just pencil in any new improved information; the mushrooms are the same.

For those who wish to dive more deeply into the Cui paper, here’s a link:
https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/The-family-Amanitaceae%3A-molecular-phylogeny%2C-and-in-Cui-Cai/630e872985b121c64c4627155cb9929e32971e5b


Review by Debbie Viess, 2021