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In own own backyard...Drinking and mushrooms don't mix

Most anyone who spends time in the woods of northern Minnesota will attest to the fact that this summer's cool, wet weather has led to a bumper crop of mushrooms. I don't think I've ever seen so many different kinds, or quite so many of them carpeting the lawn, forest floor and decaying logs and tree trunks.

While some may think mushrooms are ugly or disgusting, I never cease to be amazed by them. When I was a little girl, I loved spotting the "fairy rings" that inevitably cropped up in our yard each year. Of course, the name insinuated that magical creatures inhabited the near-perfect circles of snowy white mushrooms that seemed to emerge out of the grass overnight, and I suppose that's why I found them so intriguing.

The other type of mushroom that I really liked as a youngster was the puffball - smooth and perfectly round and sitting practically right on the surface of the ground like a golf ball. My friends and I liked to stomp on them with the bottom of our shoes, which caused them to release a small puff of "smoke" (actually the spores by which the mushrooms reproduce). The experience was all the more thrilling because we believed the "smoke" would blind us if we looked right at it! We'd stomp on one and then run like crazy, stopping several feet away to watch the gray puff of spore dust waft off into the wind.

As an adult, I still appreciate mushrooms, but more for their transient beauty, vast variety and often-unexpected appearance along the woods trails where I like to walk. My only regret is that I've never had the chance to find and pick the much-sought-after morels that make their appearance each spring. They are considered a highly edible delicacy that would be fun to hunt sometime - though I don't think I could ever eat a mushroom unless I had someone along who could tell me, beyond a doubt, that it was safe to eat!

Our son Jason's yellow Labrador, Tanner, isn't nearly so selective, however. As a pup growing up at a remote Alaskan fishing lodge, he experienced several mysterious "spells" where he'd suddenly race in circles, tear off into the woods, or roll around crazily on his back. Concerned that he might have parasites or some sort of nervous condition, Jason kept an eagle eye on the young dog, but his odd behavior remained unexplained - that is, until one of the fishing guides observed him eating mushrooms along the trail!

Today, I mostly enjoy photographing mushrooms, since up close they can be quite beautiful. And with names like "Shaggy Parasol," "Chicken of the Woods," "Velvet Foot," "Bleeding Fairy Helmet," and "Destroying Angel," each has its own distinct story and appearance. While many come in mundane tones of white or tan, there are some that boast startling shades of bright yellow, orange, pink, violet or even polka dots!

On a family birthday celebration at a resort just outside Marcell last weekend, I discovered an entire crop of unusual mushrooms growing just outside the back door of our cabin. Though they came in all shapes and sizes, the ones that fascinated me the most were tall and elegant, with bell-shaped tops edged with what looked like black ruffles around the bottom. It looked like an entire Smurf village!

I took several photos of the unusual mushrooms, and after we returned home I looked them up Larry Weber's mushroom book, "Fascinating Fungi of the North Woods."

It seems they are a species called "Alcohol Inky," known more fancifully as "Tippler's Bane." The write-up said they represent something of a "booby trap" for those mushroom lovers who also enjoy "tipping a few" every now and then.

According to the book, this particular type of mushroom contains an amino acid known as "coprine." Though it is not poisonous on its own, it causes considerable problems for anyone who consumes an alcoholic beverage within 48 to 96 hours of eating the mushroom. It seems the interaction of the two causes the unlucky drinker to experience a series of alarming symptoms, including flushing of the face and neck, rapid heartbeat, tingling extremities, swelling and numbness of the hands and face, nausea and vomiting. Though the symptoms of coprine poisoning eventually disappear on their own, I suspect the experience causes the hapless victim considerable thoughts of death and doom in the meantime.

It was then I recalled the festive birthday toast we drank during the family celebration - and gave thanks that we had enough sense not to eat the mushrooms!