Could there be a more glorious name for a fungus than Scurfy Deceiver? The Powdery Piggyback comes a close second maybe, but how can you not have a soft spot for a mushroom that sounds like a ribald Elizabethan insult!
The world of mycology teems with the most evocative of monikers. From the fluorescent Lemon Disco to the cadaverous-looking Dead Man’s Fingers, from bright yellow Sulphur Knights to gelatinous Jelly Babies, shaggy Lion’s Mane to creamy White Saddles. Such is the poetry that goes on largely unnoticed on the forest floor.
Apparently it’s been a bumper autumn for the iconic scarlet capped white studded Fly Agaric, called thus for its historic use in luring and killing household flies. In medieval times, the red cap was broken into bowls of milk, attracting flies that would then be stupefied by the chemicals released.
These days the Fly Agaric is still used by herders in Northern Scandinavia to entice stray reindeer back to the herd. The toadstool’s potent mind-bending chemicals – which can lead to euphoria and out of body experiences in humans, as well as muscle spasms and coma – often causes the usually docile animal to leap and cavort about. Which might explain why the Fly Agaric is thought to be the inspiration for the myth of Father Christmas in his cherry red and white tunic flying through the sky accompanied by his reindeer.
In Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Alice meets a languid hookah-smoking caterpillar who tells her that the mushroom he is sat upon is the key to her weird and wonderful journey down the rabbit hole. Eating from one side causes her to shrink, eating from the other to shoot up into the sky. Author Lewis Carroll must have had one hell of a trip during the research phase of the book…
To forage or not to forage?
Unless you are supremely confident in your ability to identify edible fungi like Ceps, Chanterelles and Horn of Plenty – which through a glass half empty lens is also known as the Trompette de la Mort – then common sense suggests leaving well alone.
With the obligatory health and safety warning out of the way, it’s worth noting that foraging has become a heated issue again of late – London’s Royal Parks have imposed a picking ban on mushrooms and nuts, and advisory notices warning against gathering mushrooms are all over the New Forest.
The right to forage is actually set out in the Charter of the Forest, dating from 1217, so that if you are in a place where you are entitled to be, and which is not specifically protected, you can pick for personal consumption but not for commercial use.
Some people argue that picking wild mushrooms means that woods and forests are being ransacked, potentially meaning that animals depending on them for nutrients are going hungry. Certainly many species of tree depend on a biological partnership with fungi that help them to find minerals that they can’t gather alone. Others argue that a mushroom is effectively a fruit with each one producing millions of spores enabling them to reproduce and that you wouldn’t ban blackberry picking.
Whichever side of the argument you come down on, the fungal web plays a crucial role in helping to preserve life on earth. So if you go down to the woods today, keep an eye on any recently fallen branches for slivers of Yellow Brain, deliciously also known as Witches’ Butter – it looks exactly as you’d imagine both a yellow brain and witches’ butter to look!
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