You all know my penchant for things to be descriptively named, like Death Camas. With a name like that, you know to leave it alone and definitely not eat it. I’m also not a fan of foraging, there are too many poisonous look-alikes out there. I’m not an expert in identifying wild edibles, and likely neither are you. So if I’m presented with a wild mushroom (Hey, Dad) my first reaction is a polite “No, thank you.” When told it’s called Satan’s bolete? “Oh, Hell no!”
Most boletes are edible and generally regarded as safe and easy for novice mushroom hunters to identify. Most – there are always exceptions. Rubroboletus satanas, commonly known as Satan’s bolete or Devil’s bolete, is one of these exceptions. It is likely named due to its blood-red stalk when mature, which screams “Don’t eat me!” And if the visible clues weren’t enough, the putrid stench should seal the deal. But when young, the stalk is pale colored and resembles edible boletes and smells like a regular mushroom. So do accidental poisonings occur? Most definitely.
In the southern regions of France during the summer of 2011, 184 cases of Devil’s bolete poisoning were called into Poison Control. In a study of 58 cases seen in an emergency department over a 7-day period, the wild mushroom eaters experienced abdominal pain (40%), diarrhea (67%), and vomiting (73%), with 45 of the patients hospitalized. All of the afflicted individuals experienced gastrointestinal distress several hours after eating Devil’s bolete, but recovered quickly after supportive care and intravenous fluids. So, what accounted for this massive influx of poisonings? A perfect storm of ideal weather conditions for sprouting mushrooms, misidentification between edible boletes and those of the Devil, and inexperienced foragers. (1)
So rookie mistakes are understandable, yet unfortunate and sometimes with dire consequences, like author Nicholas Evans’ kidney failure due to orellanine. But I’m always intrigued by those that deliberately poison themselves, like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle with gelsemium. So, is there a self-poisoning story involving Satan’s bolete? Of course there is.
In the fall of 1830, famed German naturalist Harald Lenz and his friend Karel Salzmann collected a type of bolete not previously described and had at it. Lenz tasted a piece, found it to be pleasant, but spat it out anyways. An hour and a half later he felt faint, but didn’t attribute it to the mushroom for some reason, and decided to eat a piece. A few hours later he felt weak and vomited repeatedly throughout the night, with twenty small seizures. After three days he finally felt better and decided to call the previously unnamed bolete Boletus satanas, and thus Satan’s bolete was born. (2)
And his buddy Karel? He didn’t fare so well, either. He cooked up Satan’s shroom with bacon and onions and had it for dinner. An hour later he had painful cramps, bloody diarrhea, and had to be sedated with a large amount of opium. He was able to move about after three days, like Harald, but felt weak for an additional three weeks. I don’t know if they remained friends afterward.
And the chemical culprit behind these poisonings? Bolesatine, a large protein made up of about 570 amino acids that causes GI distress at small doses and inhibits protein synthesis in larger ones. Protein synthesis is important – our bodies manufacture proteins in the form of enzymes to catalyze biochemical reactions, hormones as signaling molecules, antibodies for immune responses, as well as proteins for muscle contraction and transporting molecules across cell membranes. So to say protein synthesis is vital is a huge understatement. But inhibition of protein synthesis isn’t all bad, it’s how a lot of antibiotics and anti-cancer drugs work. Bolesatine isn’t exactly an antibiotic or anticancer drug, though. It works by hydrolyzing guanosine triphosphate (GTP) and adenosine triphosphate (ATP), necessary fuel sources for the cellular synthesis of proteins. The complete mechanism of action isn’t fully understood, nor are its effects in people – it’s difficult nowadays to get approval for these types of studies – but fortunately (as far as I can find) no one has died from Satan’s bolete. (3)
So my advice? Unless you’re an expert, don’t eat strange mushrooms, especially ones that look and smell like the Devil.
- Oberlin, M., et al. “Série de cas d’intoxication aux champignons dans le département du Lot durant l’été 2011. Étude descriptive.” Ann Toxicol Anal 25.1 (2013):13-16.
- Patočka, Jiří. “Bolesatine, A Toxic Protein From The Mushroom Rubroboletus Satanas.” Military Medical Science Letters 87.1 (2018): 14-20.
- Ennamany, R., J.P. Lavergne, J.P. Reboud, G. Dirheimer, and E.E. Creppy. “Mode of Action of Bolesatine, a Cytotoxic Glycoprotein from Boletus Satanas Lenz. Mechanistic Approaches.” Toxicology 100.1-3 (1995): 51-55.