Jack O’Lanterns in the Woods

By Joe Sebastiani, Seasonal Program Team Leader

This very large Northern Red Oak sits along Bucktoe Road, New Garden Twp,. PA on the Bucktoe Creek Preserve.

Across the street from where I live is a huge Northern Red Oak I admire on a daily basis.  In the fall of the last several years, this big tree sports a ring of big, bright orange mushrooms growing in clumps near its base.  This year, I decided to figure out what they are.  A search through my Peterson Field Guide to Mushrooms indicated that I had found the Jack O’Lantern.

Jack O’Lantern mushrooms are poisonous, glow in the dark, grow around oaks, and generally indicate that the tree is in poor health, and may be a sign of heart rot in the tree. It also contains a natural toxin called Irofluven that is being tested for its ability to treat cancer tumors.

The Jack O’Lantern smells good, and even supposedly tastes good, but is poisonous because it contains a muscarine toxin.  Here is a description of what might happen to you if you eat these mushrooms and get a good dose of muscarine:  The symptoms start early, after one-quarter to two hours, with headache, nausea, vomiting, and constriction of the pharynx. Then salivation, lacrimation, and diffuse perspiration set in, combined with miosis, disturbed accommodation, and reduced vision. Gastric and small bowel colic leads to diarrhea, and there is a painful urge for urination. Bronchoconstriction leads to asthmatic attacks and severe dyspnea, and bradycardia combined with marked hypotension and vasodilation results in circulatory shock. Death after 8 to 9 hours has been reported in about 5% of the cases, but can be avoided completely by prompt diagnosis and treatment with atropine.  (Waser, 1961).

As unpleasant as this sounds, there have been cases where people have eaten this mushroom not once, but twice!  Instead of eating the Jack O’Lantern, I suggest admiring its beauty both day AND night.  During the day, the beauty is obvious, with its eye-catching, blaze-orange layers of gilled fungi.  At night, the gills of this mushroom become faintly bioluminescent, emmitting a greenish glow.  By the time I learned this, the ones across the street from my house had started to rot, and lost their bioluminescent qualities.  The suggested method to see them glow is to get your eyes adjusted to the dark, and then go take a look.  Other people have tried sitting with them in a dark closet until they glow.  If you try that, let me know how it works.

Back to the huge oak tree where the Jack O’Lantern is found near my house.  Unfortunately, these mushrooms indicate that this fabulous tree may be in poor or declining health, and the tree may have heart rot, according to Nancy Fisher Gregory, Plant Diagnostician with the University of Delaware.  On a positive note, this mushroom contains a natural toxin called Irofluven that has promise in the medical treatment of cancer tumors. 

As always with mushrooms, do not eat them unless you absolutely, positively know what they are.  Even if they smell good, they might be poisonous, like the Jack O’Lantern. 

Peter G. Waser; Chemistry and pharmacology of muscarine, muscarone and some related compounds; Pharmacology Department, University of Zurich, Switzerland 1961.  Viewed through Wikipedia on October 9, 2012.

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