In the vastness of the woods, we find harbingers of death, rot and decay. These organisms feast upon corpses and burrow into spoiled fruit, perpetuating the cycle of life. And inevitably, they find their way into our lives, whether outside in the low thrums of nature or in the comfort of our homes. There is no life without fungi.

Even if you’re not a fan of eating commercialised, store-bought mushrooms, there’s a certain allure that other unusual species of mushrooms have; almost as if there’s a magnetic field drawing you in.

These unusual types can even be found in Malaysia, if you can brave the heat waves and dengue mosquitoes. Foraging is more difficult here since you’re at the mercy of the tropics, but you may be lucky to find something like this cauliflower mushroom while on the Bukit Kiara hiking trail.

When I think of mushrooms, however… My mind often wanders to the other side of the world. I picture bright orange mushrooms, resembling anemone under the sea (Orange Peel Fungus). I’ve had my curiosity piqued by stunning images of violet-coloured mushrooms found in the UK (Amethyst Deceivers) with its appearance resembling its well-loved friends: the flowers. Together, they create a complete landscape of land and sea, painted by mushrooms.

What would it be like to bite into it? To cook it into a dish? To invite it into my kitchen and into the bellies of my loved ones? They look so strange… So foreign… How could they possibly be edible?

Surprisingly, a lot of them are edible, but there are important exceptions to this. Often, the most dangerous mushrooms are the ones that look the most unassuming. This is where it gets deadly for those who try foraging with minimal experience and knowledge. 

Mycotoxins have directly taken countless lives, with some cases of it even being done intentionally. In 54 A.D, the Roman emperor Tiberius Claudius was killed by his own wife, Agrippina. The murder weapon? You guessed it! Mushrooms.

This is the main reason why fungi are often associated with death, chaos, and sometimes even paganism. Sometimes, even the word itself is met with distaste. It is a manifestation of the unknown. And we have always feared the unknown.

Those before us have tried to uncover the mysteries of mushrooms, from scientists to regular folk who inherit the knowledge of mycology from their experiences and from the words of their community. Their discoveries and sacrifices have helped us immensely. We now know the identities of many poisonous mushrooms, allowing us to adeptly recognise them and avoid any future incidents.

Thanks to them, I can now introduce you to the infamous serial killers of the fungi kingdom, starting with the Destroying Angel.

Destroying Angel, Amanita virosa

A beautiful name given to a beautiful, deadly mushroom. It’s appearance is other-worldly. The Destroying Angel is responsible for about 95% of deaths by mushrooms in the world, partly due to its early stage being easily confused with the edible, harmless puffball mushrooms. 

At first bite, you’re given a false sense of security when you realise you’re still alive and breathing. This relief is short-lived. Hours after consumption, the excruciating symptoms start to appear, including vomiting and diarrhoea. All this while, the poison has been quietly attacking your liver and kidneys. Soon, your organs fail, and that’s it. There is no antidote. Only the sweet certainty of death.

Death Cap, Amanita phalloides

Hailing from the same genus as the Destroying Angel, the Death Cap is similar in the way it kills. The toxin stealthily attacks your liver and kidneys, making sure you don’t notice a thing. A single mushroom contains many times over the normal amount that would be fatal. Coupled with its deceivingly common appearance, the Death Cap is not to be messed with.

Lucky survivors have described its taste to be delicious, and with recent potential antidote breakthroughs, perhaps the number of said survivors will grow…

Fly Agaric, Amanita muscaria

The enchanting Fly Agaric looks as if it came straight out of a fairytale (true enough, it was featured in Lewis Caroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland) or mayhaps a Super Mario game. I used to think that this mushroom could only be found in fiction, but no! It’s definitely real. And although it isn’t quite as deadly or poisonous as the other two, I believe it deserves to be known.

Its name comes from its traditional use as an insecticide. It was added into milk, which flies drank, lulling them into a drowsy slumber followed by death. For humans, eating it raw would spell disaster. If you do, you’ll be greeted by a plethora of symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, drowsiness, and in some cases you meet death. It is actually safe to consume when prepared and cooked correctly, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

Seriously, don’t.

Stop it.

Don’t even think about it.

I am not liable for anything that hap—

In Defence of Fungi

We’ve been talking a lot about death… But fungi aren’t evil. They merely mark the end of a life, and thus the start of a new one. They are the intermediate between life and death, connecting us to one another. Just like the intricate network system of mycelium underground. It is all alive. Everything— destined to help us fulfil our roles in the universe. To announce our place in the family of things, as Mary Oliver says.

That said, fungi have another role to play in our lives— and that role is in science. Fungi helped set the stage for modern medicine by enabling the creation of penicillin, whose influence dates back to World War II. It led us to the creation of antibiotics, saving millions of lives and treating countless diseases; proving once again that everything given to us on this earth is full of purpose, and never malice. 

Once we die, we will be filled with the exact same purpose. We become a gift of reciprocity between mother life and father death; an exchange of blood and soil, in which the fungi will envelop us wholly. They are the ones who will welcome us home. 


Long Litt Woon, The Way Through The Woods

Mary Oliver, Wild Geese

WebMD, Destroying Angel

WoodlandTrust, Deathcap (Amanita phalloides)

NCBI, NLM, The death of Claudius

Britannica, death cap

the Oxford Scientist, How the discovery of penicillin has influenced modern medicine

First Nature, Amanita muscaria (L.) Pers. – Fly Agaric

Written by: Zara

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