As a child growing up in the 1980s, I was obsessed with two things. One was sweets. I had a boyfriend whose purpose was to buy me Sherbet Dip Dabs and hold my hand on the walk to school every morning.
My other obsession was slightly more obscure: fungi.
While other kids were collecting Care Bears or Star Wars figures, I was rustling about in a nearby woodland looking for mushrooms. By the age of seven, my bewildered parents had bought me about five books on the subject which I would read from cover to cover.
These days, as soon as someone discovers that I write foraging articles, their first question is always about foraging mushrooms. While I own multiple books on the subject (and have even attended a mushroom foraging course), I have never purposefully written anything about collecting mushrooms. And why is that? Well, my studies convinced me of the potential danger of wild mushrooms, the scarcity of some species, and the sacredness of them all.
A mushroom is the reproductive part of the organism. Underneath the soil lies a fine web of threads creating a network known as mycelium. The threads’ job is to break down decaying materials to supply sustenance for the network. Sometimes the mycelium penetrates living trees thereby creating bracket-type fungus such as dryads saddle. Under the ground, the pattern of the network can also create ‘Fairy Circles’ of toadstools.
And right there is why I found mushrooms so fascinating. I understood that dryads and fairies weren’t real, but I knew for certain that the magical process of mycelium threads was happening directly under my feet. It was turning dead organic matter into amazing toadstools in an array of colours and wonderful shapes and sizes.
Last year created the perfect conditions for wild mushrooms. This meant that our front garden was full of about 40 gorgeous fly agaric toadstools growing in a huge circle. There was an unearthly quality about them, something almost hallowed about the space, which is an odd thing to experience in an ordinary suburban garden. It served to remind me why I had loved fungi so much as a child and it rekindled my interest.
A fascination with fungi
Over the years, my fascination has lead me to look at our relationship with fungi. I discovered that their power was often revered and yet also, quite sensibly, feared. They have been utilised for medicine, food, tinder and even as an ingredient in rights and customs.
I found out why we have two names for fungi: toadstools and mushrooms. Up until the end of the last century, ‘toadstools’ denoted poisonous species while ‘mushrooms’ were edible. It turns out that there are also far more mushrooms than I realised. According to The Royal Botanic Gardens, there are roughly 15,000 types of fungi in the UK. When you measure this against British wildflower species which number around 2,000, you can comprehend the vastness of the subject.
While all had been given Latin titles, up until 20 years ago very few had British names. In the early 2000s, The List of Recommended English Names for Fungi was published, renaming some and giving brand new names to others. In a way this highlighted how far behind mycology is compared with our botanical knowledge. Plant names are often centuries old, while many fungi continue to remain unnamed.
Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why I don’t write articles about mushroom foraging. With such a colossal number of fungi species, how could I possibly arm people with enough information to safely collect them?
For a start, many mushrooms look incredibly alike – one might be perfectly edible while the other could make you very ill indeed. And a lot of books give conflicting information. Take fly agaric (amanita muscaria) for instance, the beautiful red and white mushroom that most people are familiar with. It is a potent and potentially lethal fungi and, if ingested, can cause serious health problems.
In Herbs for Daily Use by Mary Thorne Quelch, under mushrooms she writes that ‘the puffball and the fly agaric are edible’. This is quite wrong. Fly agaric must never be eaten – their effect on the central nervous system and blood pressure is highly dangerous. She also claimed that a method of distinguishing poisonous from edible fungi is to place a silver spoon in the frying pan. If the spoon discoloured this showed they were dangerous. As far as I’m aware this is also absolute balderdash.
But back to fly agaric. Even the name is contentious. Some books claim it is so called due to its powerful fly repelling abilities. Other sources suggest it was once used in witches’ flying ointments as a hallucinogenic that created a sense of flying or floating (do not try this at home). Similarly I have read that the Sami people of Northern Europe dried the fungi and fed it to reindeer. Apparently, they then drank the animal’s urine to stimulate a spiritual experience that we might call a trip. Again, definitely don’t try this at home.
As Mushrooms and Toadstools Of Britain and Europe by Edmund Garnweidner explains, ‘the fly agaric contains the agent muscimol which causes disturbances of consciousness and hallucinations. Do not try tasting this fungus. It contains further, not yet analysed poisons which are dangerous to health and can, in rare cases, prove fatal.’
That’s why I would only ever suggest attending a mushroom foraging course with an experienced forager who knows exactly what they are doing. Even now we are finding new information about our native fungi so it pays to learn from an expert.
For centuries, mycology (the biological study of fungi) has been a narrow field of research. But, in the last few decades, fungi and its uses have become a hot topic. In China and Japan, the medicinal uses of mushrooms such as turkey tail are purported to have anti-viral and antibiotic properties. It is also reported that a tincture of the dried fungi is used to restore and balance gut microbes and bacteria.
In Asia, turkey tail is believed to be a powerful medicine for cancer, so much so that the fungi’s compounds have been used in treatments for the past 40 years. While on a mushroom foraging course, a local patch of turkey tail was pointed out to me. So, when a friend was diagnosed with cancer, I collected some one frosty morning from a nearby wood. Under the advice of the expert, I boiled it for several hours to extract the constituent properties which are thought to help the body fight cancer. I then froze the mushroom stock in an ice cube tray for him to add to his food. On top of his hospital treatment, it’s hard to know how much the wild mushroom aided his recovery, but thankfully he is still here.
The future is fungi?
Fungi-based innovation has spread to other areas such as packaging. Companies like IKEA have embraced the revolution, replacing plastic and polystyrene with biodegradable mushroom-based products. Let’s hope that other companies follow their lead.
In horticulture, adding mycorrhizal fungi to soil has recently been found to help plant roots absorb more nutrients and water. It’s thought to be a possible solution to the effects of harsh conditions such as drought and climate change on plants.
So, the future of mycology continues to surprise, and who knows what else will be discovered about these amazing organisms. In the meantime, just enjoy the beauty of any wild specimens you find and leave the collecting to the experts.