Quick facts

Common name: deathcap

Scientific name: Amanita phalloides

Family: Amanitaceae

Fruiting season: July to November

Habitat: mixed deciduous woods, often in widely spaced groups, particularly under oak and beech

What does deathcap look like?

A large fungus growing up to 15cm across and 15cm tall with a domed or white cap – depending on age – on an off-white stem. Although it looks fairly inoffensive and similar to a number of edible mushrooms, it is deadly poisonous.

Fruitbody: a shiny olive-yellow to greenish-bronze cap, 5–15cm in diameter. Dome-shaped at first and flattening as it matures, darker in the middle with faint radiating fibres giving it a streaked appearance.  It smells sickly sweet and rancid when old, though at the button stage is virtually odourless.

Gills/spores: underneath the cap, the gills are broad and free, pure white turning cream or even slightly pink as they age. The spores are smooth and are elliptical in shape and its spore print is white.

Stipe (stalk): the stem is off-white, 7–15cm high with a floppy ring. It is swollen at the base and sits in a bag, or volva.

Not to be confused with: false deathcap (Amanita citrina), which smells strongly of raw potatoes. It is said to be edible but should be avoided because it is easily confused with deathcap and its deadly cousin, destroying angel (Amanita virosa).

Several deathcap mushrooms

Credit: WTML

Where to find deathcap

Deathcap is fairly common in most parts of the UK, Ireland and mainland Europe. It can be found in mixed deciduous woods, often in widely spaced groups, and particularly under oak and beech.

Did you know?

Squirrels and rabbits don’t appear to be affected by eating deathcap mushrooms.

Value to wildlife

Deathcap is a mycorrhizal fungi and largely lives off the roots of trees, releasing nutrients back into the soil for reabsorption by plants, and therefore plays a vital role in the woodland ecosystem.

Mythology and symbolism

Deathcaps are able to produce circles of fruiting bodies, known as fairy rings, which over centuries have been the subject of fairy tales and folklore.

With only a small amount of the cap being necessary to kill someone, and symptoms not always appearing straight away, they have been used as an invisible murder weapon for millennia. The Romans and ancient Greeks recognised it as a deadly poison. It is said that Agrippina murdered her husband, Roman Emperor Claudius, by mixing deathcap juice with Caesar’s mushrooms (Amanita caesarea). He died of poisoning a few days after the meal. Voltaire claimed that Charles VI died by deathcap poisoning.

Thousands more have died when mistaking deathcaps for edible mushroom species, especially at the button stage.

Deathcap fruiting body

Credit: Frank Blackburn / Alamy Stock Photo

Uses of deathcap

Deathcap, as its name implies, is deadly poisonous! Beware of mistaking young ‘button’ specimens for edible mushrooms.

Did you know?

Deathcaps contain the poison amanitin and are responsible for 90% of deaths by fungus, with half a cap or even less enough to kill a person.