How A Facebook Group Helps People Identify Mysterious Mushrooms

16:42 minutes

someone taking a picture of a small brown mushroom with their phone
Credit: Shutterstock

Mushroom season has begun. A wide variety of fungi are sprouting up in forests and yards, especially after a heavy rainstorm. 

While wild mushrooms are generally safe to touch, eating mysterious fungi is a terrible idea. But, sometimes a child or a dog gobbles up an unknown species. In order to determine if it’s poisonous or not, you’ll need an expert opinion—quickly. 

That’s why Kerry Woodfield helped start a Facebook group to help people correctly identify poisonous mushrooms and plants. She recruited over 200 botanists and mycologists from all over the world to volunteer their time. In the past few years, the group has mushroomed to over 130,000 members. 

Guest host John Dankosky talks with Woodfield, co-founder of the Facebook group, Poisons Help; Emergency Identification For Mushrooms & Plants and foraging instructor at Wild Food UK. She discusses why she decided to start the group, its role within the poison control system, and how to talk to the kids in your life about poisonous plants and mushrooms.

If you’re looking for help identifying plant and fungi when its not an emergency, check out some of these other Facebook communities:

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Segment Guests

Kerry Woodfield

Kerry Woodfield is co-Founder of the Poisons Help; Emergency Identification For Mushrooms & Plants Facebook group and a foraging instructor at Wild Food UK in Hereford, England.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. Mushroom season is upon us. All different types of fungi are sprouting up in the woods, or maybe even in your yard after a heavy rainstorm.

Mushrooms are cool to look at, of course, and generally OK to touch. The trouble comes if, say, a little kid or a dog eats one. How do if it’s poisonous? Well, you’ll want an expert opinion, and you’ll want that opinion pretty fast.

My next guest started a Facebook group to do just that, including poisonous plants, too. She recruited more than 200 botanists and mycologists from all over the world to volunteer their time. And the group has mushroomed in the past several years. It now has over 130,000 members.

Joining me is Kerry Woodfield, co-founder of the Facebook group Poisons Help– Emergency Identification for Mushrooms and Plants. Kerry is also a foraging instructor at Wild Food UK, based in Hereford, England. Kerry, welcome to Science Friday. Thanks for being here.

KERRY WOODFIELD: Hello, thanks for having me.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So there are a lot of plant foraging and identification groups online. Why did you decide to create one that’s specifically for identifying poisonous plants and mushrooms?

KERRY WOODFIELD: I think it was we identified that there was a need for this kind of thing. We noticed that– I say “we.” Myself, the other co-founder, and a lot of the other people that I’d come to through the foraging groups, we noticed that people were turning to Facebook for an identification and just sort of posting on lots of groups when, say, little Timmy or little Fido had eaten a mushroom or a plant. And you don’t necessarily want to take a big trip down to the A&E, we call it. You would call it the ER. So they were trying to ascertain what this was.

And by this point, we’d all kind of made a bit of a name for ourselves as good at being able to identify things. So we’d be tagged into these kinds of posts. And sometimes, I wouldn’t be able to identify something, so I’d tag in other people who I thought might be able to help as well. And eventually, we kind of realized we were all doing this anyway, so we might as well formalize it in a way that meant that the whole world ended up being covered by someone who is going to be awake and know what it was at the time that it was needed.

Most of them were going to be not harmful at all. But in the cases where it’s ones that are poisonous and in the deadly range, you really need a quick identification to have the best outcome. And so we decided after one of the particular cases, which had involved tagging in quite a lot of people– it was a very difficult case involving an autistic, non-verbal five-year-old. And we realized that we were all so worried about maybe going to sleep or going to work or driving or being without Wi-Fi that the only way to sort of go forward was either to step back and not do it at all or to find a way to make it more cohesive.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Could you tell us more about this case that kind of got everything started, this case of a five-year-old autistic child who had ingested something?

KERRY WOODFIELD: Yes. So it was in Britain. I think it might have actually been a Scottish school that the school had photographed it and told the mum that their child had eaten this. He wasn’t able to communicate how much or anything. But it was clearly in bits.

And it was part of the Cortinarius genus, which has over 600 species. And so we were sort of all being tagged in by concerned people who knew that we were quite good at the identification and realized that it might be beyond, say, my scope, but not someone else’s. We got the answer eventually, and it turned out to be a non-toxic member of the genus.

But after sort of talking it through with my then-housemate, we were talking about how we were getting a lot of these tags. And hey, wouldn’t it be a good idea if we set up some kind of place that everything could go to at the same time and was only staffed, then, by people who really knew what they were talking about? Because another problem on Facebook groups is everyone has an opinion. And that opinion may not always be something that is appropriate in that particular situation. You want, when it’s your child or your health or your pet’s health or a loved one, when it’s their health on the line, you want to know that you can trust the answer.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So if your dog or your child eats a plant or a mushroom, and maybe you’re concerned, most people’s first instinct is, of course, to call local poison control. So I guess I’ll ask you– I assume that the thing to do is to call poison control first, right? Not to go on the Facebook group.

KERRY WOODFIELD: Actually, it depends. But if it’s something as dangerous as a dandelion leaf or a lettuce leaf, that’s something that you don’t necessarily need to do, whereas calling poison control– what’s happening now is actually they’re referring people to us anyway. Or they themselves, the people in poison control, are posting with what they’re receiving. And to be honest, a few of our identifiers are poison control, too. We’ve selected scientists and people who really do know what they’re talking about.

Also, if it’s a really dangerous one, you’ve got a small window of time to act. So you want to get that information to them as soon as possible. This isn’t to replace the systems already in place. This isn’t to sort of undermine or take away from poison control or the amazing work that medical professionals do. This is actually to help them as well.

We’re very, very fast. Our record’s, like, under a minute. But you’ll definitely be seen in under five. So by the time you’ve managed to tie your shoelaces and put your toddler in the car, you’ve got the answer as to whether or not you’re driving down to the emergency room with the identification to give them or whether or not you’re going to the ice cream shop to fill them up on ice cream. They’re clearly hungry.

And an ice cream is our patented method for our non-toxic prescriptions, if you’ve eaten something non-toxic. I think it was Patrick Bjork, our Swedish mycologist and botanist, who– he’s quite famous for stepping in and calming down terrified parents with this rather lovely little prescription for ice cream and then maybe a glass of wine for mom and dad because you’ve had a scare.

JOHN DANKOSKY: It sounds like those are some pretty safe prescriptions to give. I want to ask about this group of experts that you’ve recruited from all over the world. They’re volunteers. Who are these people, and how did you recruit them to be part of this group?

KERRY WOODFIELD: So in any community, you start to become familiar with who’s good at something and strengths and weaknesses. So we started to all recognize each other’s talents and abilities. And so that sort of found the core people, and then asking them, who do you know that I don’t that would also be good?

We’ve got a lot of big names behind us. And it’s really– I don’t know why they decided to work for me. Like, I don’t know anything in comparison to these people. These are people who– they’ve been working for sometimes decades in the industry as lecturers and mycologists and botanists and researchers. In their spare time, they’re like, yeah, OK. This isn’t something that we’re paid to do, so they sort of dip in and out when they can.

JOHN DANKOSKY: These are people who are giving their time. And they’ve got day jobs, wherever they work. You can’t have just anybody asking questions round the clock. You have very specific rules about who can post and what sorts of questions actually go to this esteemed group.

KERRY WOODFIELD: If it’s a casual question that doesn’t have the emergency criteria with mushrooms being ingested or with plants being touched or ingested, then just put it on one of the other groups that we run. And you’ll get seen. You’ll get the answer.

But when it is an emergency, we get that internal alert system which pulls us all in to have a look at it, or whoever’s awake and able, obviously. But we drop everything for some of these cases. I’ve pulled over on the side of the road. I’ve handed my breastfeeding baby to my partner and ran out to the car with my books in order to deal with a case, because we do prioritize it.

And the reason that we’re so strict about asking about where in the world we are, and if I were to say, oh, this is in HR2, that’s not going to mean anything to your listeners because that’s specific to Britain, whereas state abbreviations that a lot of people in the USA are familiar with don’t mean anything to, say, myself or people in Australia or the Philippines. So we need people to say exactly where they are and, like, spell it out, because that way we can alert the relevant people.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Exactly. Well, and luckily, most of the cases that you get calls for are not life threatening. But every once in a while, a correct identification really is a matter of life and death. Can you tell us about how you were able to save the life of a boy in Pakistan who ate a mysterious berry.

KERRY WOODFIELD: Oh, that was a really horrible case. The group was fairly new at that point. And we got contacted by someone from a hospital saying, three boys have eaten this berry. Two of them were already dead, the eight-year-old and the 10-year-old, I think. And it was the 12, 13-year-old who was unconscious.

And I actually– I don’t know Pakistani flora. But one of the gifts, maybe, of the ADHD/autistic brain is being able to recognize, like, internal patterns. And normally, we don’t Google on a hunch, but normally we’ve got someone who can ID it who actually knows it. But in this particular case, we didn’t. We were a very new group.

And I googled “Pakistan red berry” and scrolled through about six Google pages before I came across this one called masuri berry. I found the scientific name, put that in, and pulled up all of the same pictures, which allowed me to confirm. And then found out, yes, this is a horrendous toxin. So passed that back to the hospital.

And once that’s done, once the ident is done, that’s my job done. Obviously, we like a follow-up, but we don’t harangue anyone for it. And it actually took someone being a little nosy about a year later asking what happened. And he said, yeah, that the boy did live. But usually, if people have pulled through, they’re very quick to tell us. And obviously, you can understand that that will stay with me forever.

JOHN DANKOSKY: But it’s amazing that you were able to do what you did, and amazing that you’re able to find some of this information just knowing a bit about how this works. You’re an expert in this field, but not even necessarily knowing all the berries in Pakistan, you’re able to do a search in a much more efficient way than someone else would.

I guess I should ask, though– so many people, because of the internet, because of Google and because of all these plant applications that you can get on your phone, probably a whole lot of people think they know more than they do, right? They can look up red berries in Pakistan pretty easily as well. What’s the difference between you and the people in your group and someone with a smartphone and a plant ID app?

KERRY WOODFIELD: That’s a very good question. And a lot of it, I think, comes down to knowing what you know but, importantly, knowing what you don’t know. And there’s a lot of drive to feel that you’re good at something, the best at something. And I think that’s part of the reason the people that we recruited were recruited, was because they knew their limits and they knew when they were able to do something and able to say, I don’t know this one, but I know who might.

Obviously, we recruit people with a track record, a proven history of getting things right. The epidemic of app users at the moment is quite worrying, because they’re just not accurate enough yet. Some of us did a test, and we worked out it was something like 30% accuracy. But I’ve certainly had deadly hemlock identified as an edible. One of our people, her son’s hair was identified as a gourmet mushroom.

And we run on a consensus as well. So we need at least three people to agree with that consensus. That way, if one of us is having a bad day and gets it wrong– which does happen, we’re all human– it doesn’t matter because we’ve got all the other people able to say, no, actually, that’s incorrect because of X,Y, and Z.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I’m talking with Kerry Woodfield, co-founder of a Facebook group that helps to identify poisonous plants and mushrooms. I’m John Dankosky, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

Well, obviously you and your group are there to help. But you’d love it if you didn’t get so many calls from around the world. What sort of tips do you have for people who are spending time outside with their kids and with their dogs, things that they might just need to know in order to help identify things in advance or to just make sure that they’re safe and they’re not having to call you?

KERRY WOODFIELD: In terms of staying safe, obviously most of our cases are going to be toddlers and puppies. So knowing that they’re sort of the wild card, as it were, the uncontrolled aspect of it. But they’re fast, and I’m certainly not faster than my toddler half the time. So it’s a mixture of supervision, teaching them early on to only eat things that have been cooked and that you can name, so that way they bring it to you to identify, making it a game. Rather than run away or lie about what they’ve done, they’re able to share with you that they’re interested in this thing, and then you can talk about it.

And mushrooms and plants, they don’t have legs. They won’t chase you. So in terms of with mushrooms, particularly, you have to actually put them into your stomach for them to pose a problem. With plants, they can be a bit more dangerous. We’ve all been stung by a nettle, or I think poison ivy is a big problem in the States.

Certainly, the dangerous ones are worth learning. But also, try not to think about it as a way of, like, sanitizing nature. These things are doing their job. They’ve got a purpose and a life of their own.

There was this wonderful poem I read about this man who– his toddler had gotten stung by a nettle. And so he burned and he hacked and he dug up. And then the next week, they were up again. And actually, the lesson there is, teach and learn about how to avoid the harm rather than trying to eliminate the harm, because the world is not going to be sanitized so easily.

We teach our children how to cross the road, look left and right. You don’t sanitize everything. You learn and adapt how to deal with the world.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah. That’s, I think, a good place to end. Kerry Woodfield is co-founder of the Facebook group Poisons Help– Emergency Identification for Mushrooms and Plants. Kerry is also a foraging instructor at Wild Food UK, based in Hereford, England. Thank you so much for your time.

KERRY WOODFIELD: Thanks so much for having me. This has been really exciting.

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Shoshannah Buxbaum is a producer for Science Friday. She’s particularly drawn to stories about health, psychology, and the environment. She’s a proud New Jersey native and will happily share her opinions on why the state is deserving of a little more love.

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John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have three cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut. 

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