Encounter With A Malign Angel

Yesterday morning I was hiking up Ramsey Canyon in the Huachuca Mountains with a botanically-oriented friend, Richard, who also lives in Bisbee.

The morning was pleasantly cloudy and the creek running through the canyon was ebullient, full of monsoon run-off and cheerily splashing over boulders in numerous waterfalls.

Most visitors to Ramsey Canyon, a Nature Conservancy preserve which luckily wasn’t affected by the catastrophic fires of 2011, come there to look for birds. I’m not a birder, although I enjoy seeing them. I don’t have a “life list” aside from an informal and internal mental one; I like plants and fungi, organisms which can’t run or fly away and hide.

Richard and I were happily discussing the possible IDs of several mysterious plants which we had encountered when I saw a pale mushroom growing right in the trail. It was an old but poisonous friend, one of a complex of Amanitas which I had become familiar with during my years in Missouri. This one was probably Amanita ocreata, but it showed an unmistakable resemblance to relatives in Missouri I had encountered. Here’s a 2005 photo which, thanks to blog-friend Joan Ryan, I still have archived:

Perhaps I’m perverse, but I enjoy picking and examining deadly Amanitas, knowing that one bite would kill me. These innocent-appearing fungi seem to have an aura of mortality surrounding them.

Richard was interested as well. He asked me, “What are the symptoms? Do you die right away?”

“No, they have a bait-and-switch technique. You feel deathly ill for several days as your kidneys begin to fail, then one morning you wake up and feel just fine. You think, ‘Maybe I’ll recover!’. Meanwhile your kidneys are shutting down for good, and within twenty-four hours you die.”

We walked on, and eventually began to encounter an intriguing but inconspicuous flower. It looked like some sort of orchid to me, as it had a single fleshy leaf clasping the stem, but the flower looked like that of no other orchid I had ever encountered.

Later, when I was back home, I used all of the printed and ‘net resources I had available to identify this plant. I’m certain that it is Malaxis corymbosa, an orchid that is a great example of a plant native to the Madrean Sky Islands, here at the northern extent of its range. This orchid ranges down as far as Guatemala, and it grows here in southeast Arizona as a relict of former times and climates. A photo:

A walk in such a pristine area is like a time-slice, as two weeks from now there will be a new panoply of species to observe. This is the monsoon season, when most of the scanty rainfall this drought-stricken region receives will fall. Then we’ll be back to unrelenting aridity until next summer!




Filed under Arizona, Natural History

9 responses to “Encounter With A Malign Angel

  1. A few years ago, I read a mushroom poisoning “victim’s account” somewhere. I believe it may have been on the Cornell U. fungi site. Didn’t sound like much fun. Definitely not one of those experiments that I would wish to replicate.
    Not having been in southeast Arizona during monsoon season, it is difficult to imagine all the greenery and that large mushrooms would be pushing up out of the duff!

  2. rainnnn

    I’ve stayed in Ramsey when the cabins were rented out and we hiked way up to the pools, got to see the elegant trogons. I am leery of mushrooms even from those who say they know and go out hunting the delicacies. Every so often someone makes a big goof with them. 😦

  3. The people who make “big goofs” are those who haven’t done sufficient research. There are many genera of mushrooms which are fool-proof, such as the boletes, morels, and the chanterelles. How many people take spore-prints? Those who don’t are relying upon folk beliefs, entertaining but dangerous.

  4. rainnnn

    Some who where killed in my region of the PNW had come from elsewhere and thought they could rely on the same mushrooms from there as being safe here. I don’t remember from where exactly but across the Pacific Ocean.

  5. rainnnn

    were– that’s what I get for watching the news at the same time I am typing something…

  6. bev

    I’ve heard of a couple or so people who got poisoned by mushrooms that they thought looked similar to edible mushrooms back in Europe. Some I met in Ontario was told by an elderly European relative that mushrooms that had been partly eaten by slugs and snails were safe to eat – which is not at all true. Lots of bad information out there!

  7. I’ve heard several stories of recent immigrants fooled by fungal beliefs which worked just fine in their native lands.

    One of the beliefs you refer to, Bev, actually has something to it, though not enough to merit risking lives. Deadly white amanitas typically are flawless, with very little insect damage visible. I can imagine squirrel parents admonishing their young, in a Disneyesque mental scenario:

    “Now steer clear of these mushrooms, younguns! They look good, but great-uncle Harry died after eating one!”

  8. I understand that the reason for the “poisoned by what you thought was edible in the old country” phenomenon is that in many taxa the European flora (funga?) is simpler than the North American. The most evident of these is Gyrometra esculenta, which we once (1976) figured must be esculent if Linnaeus had called them that – and they are in Sweden – but some North American (including New Brunswickian) strains contain a kind of rocket fuel which left me unwell for several days.

  9. During my years in NE Missouri I saw Gyromitras every year during morel season. Local farmers would pick them along with morels and eat them and they really didn’t seem to distinguish the two genera. I never cooked any — after all, maybe after a couple of generations the locals had built up an immunity to rocket fuel! Nobody ate boletes or chanterelles in that county aside from myself and my family. The prevailing attitude was that any mushroom that didn’t grow in the spring was a toadstool!

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