Poisonous or not? UBC researcher developing mushroom app

As foraging in forests and wild areas appears to be gaining in popularity, botany professor Mary Berbee says her tool will help people avoid picking dangerous mushrooms such as death caps, which can result in fatalities.

Botany professor Mary Berbee says tool developed in response to growing interest in foraging

UBC botany professor Marry Berbee is working on a smartphone app that will help foragers determine if a mushroom is poisonous or not. (UBC Public Affairs)

A UBC botany professor is working on a new tool to help foragers avoid potentially dangerous mushrooms in the province.

"Mushrooms don't have a whole lot of characteristics that you can use to distinguish them," said Mary Berbee as part of a release from the school.

Berbee says the idea for the app is a response to an increased interest in foraging.

Berbee is working with several groups to develop the app including the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, which she says is also developing a poster, available in multiple languages to warn about the dangers of death cap mushrooms.

Amanita phalloides — the mushroom's scientific name — has made news around the province as they appear to be proliferating and caused the death of a three-year old child in October 2016.

Berbee says a smartphone app is preferable to field guides because most people have a mobile device and apps can be regularly updated with information.

"The app shows all the look-a-likes for mushrooms that you might find in the area, and it's easier to cross reference," she said.

App ready for Sept. 2018

Berbee says people in Europe started describing mushrooms in the 1800s.

In the 1990s, others started to use DNA sequences to better understand species of mushrooms. Berbee says the sequencing shows the range of where a specific type can be found.

"About a third of our B.C. species are regional and not shared with Europe as previously assumed," she said. "Many of them are new to science."

Berbee says scientists have listed around 3,000 different mushrooms that exist in B.C., but admits the list is incomplete.

"That's just what we know based on herbarium records," she said.

Berbee says while she has observed some mushrooms on UBC's Vancouver campus that would give a person a sore stomach if ingested, she hasn't seen any deadly ones.

The app is expected to be ready in time for the next foraging season in September 2018, in the meantime an early online version can be found here.