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Mushroom is a humble-sounding name for one of the major divisions of life.* Scientists call it the fungi kingdom. Ordinary folk divide this kingdom into the edible (mushrooms) and the inedible (toadstools), because they are either toxic, lethal, or unpleasant to eat. My grandfather believed that you could tell the difference between the two by boiling them and then putting a silver spoon in the cooking liquid. Toadstools turned the spoon black.

In fact, mycophiles must master a far more sophisticated system of identification requiring spore prints, knowledge of the arcana of how gills attach to stipes, and facility with a low-powered magnifying glass as well as the diagnostic powers of Meltzer’s solution. But even the untutored stand a fairly good chance of living their normal span because relatively few species are lethal or even seriously toxic. This should not be taken as encouragement to stuff any old fungus in your mouth. Some very common mushrooms will destroy your liver lickety-split.

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