I know it’s approaching that time of year again because of the escalation in fungus related queries to the office. It’s true that if you’re an ecologist there are a lot of that time of the year’s – damn phenology and the disconcerting need we have to find new and interesting ways to mark the passing of time, the loss of another year on the inexorable road towards our inevitable demise – perhaps I should be more specific: Mushroom season is almost upon us, encroaching into our humdrum lives with needle-thin, barely-visible rhizomes that nevertheless cover us in a choking web of suffocating, earthy tendrils. I may be overdoing it ever so slightly.
‘I know these mushrooms are poisonous and want to report it. Children might pick them up and eat them.’
My favourite thing about this is the lovely insinuation that I know what it is and I’m not going to tell you and if you don’t know, that’s your own fault. Which I suspect means they don’t really know. Now there are many directions I could spiral off into from that sentence: The perceived need to coddle our children by sterilising their engagement with the natural world; the loss of environmental language from our vocabulary; the need for improved ecological education in our young ‘uns; Another quiz – name that fungus (I say Clouded Agaric, my boss says Honey Fungus, but from that photo who the hell can tell?1).
Instead, I will offer some thoughts and anecdotes on fungal-phobia and fungal-philia. On a recent social engagement (yes, I do actually have a few friends. Well, my wife does, anyway), someone was trying to describe an associates young gentleman friend in terms I could understand and relate to.
‘He forages for mushrooms commercially, you’d like him’ my wife’s friend says.
‘No, oh no I really don’t think I would.’ I didn’t say, because despite appearances I am unceasingly polite. Honest. I also did not say anything about the scourge of fungus foraging on areas of ancient woodland, such as Epping Forest who installed a blanket ban on the activity while I worked there, such was its destructive nature. I did not condemn the ‘pick now, sort it later’ approach many of these ‘foragers’ took and how it can strip an area of fruiting fungal bodies, that this might reduce mushroom yields in subsequent years and the deleterious effect this could have on leaf litter decomposition etc2.
Shouldn’t I be encouraging this kind of interaction with the natural environment, I hear you say? Isn’t that your whole schtick? A fair point, and I am leaving myself open to the perennial accusation of eco-snobbery with which I have occasionally been charged, usually with good reason.
The problem is that there are actually very few poisonous mushrooms in this country, but also few that are truly what I’d call edible. Also, some of the poisonous ones have an annoying habit of impersonating the edible ones. And then killing you. Why take the chance? I don’t (unless it’s a really obvious one), and I’m going to give myself the ringing endorsement of ‘not terrible’ at mushroom ID.
Now everyone wants to have a crack at foraging. I blame Mabey. Unfortunately it’s pretty hard to distinguish some mushrooms without picking them, sometimes you have to take them home and get them under a microscope or do a spore print. Not great for the fungus. Isn’t this attitude better than the ‘it must be poisonous’ attitude displayed in the quote at the start of this article though (I hang my head if this actually is a poisonous mushroom)? I suppose a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, but it is probably preferable to outright ignorance.
1Correct answer = a lifetime’s free subscription to this blog…etc..etc
2I’d be grateful if anyone is able to point me in the direction of any such research – whether over-foraging results in a marked decrease in fungus yields etc. as the fruiting body is presumably already ‘sporing’…’spored’?…I’m not sure what the correct phrase is.