Fantastic Fungi

I’ve been obsessed with fungi ever since I heard the mushroom joke as a small boy. I was exploring my dad’s record collection, and through the hiss and crackle of a warped 78 I distinctly remember Lonnie Donegan singing about toadstools and dustbins. I was immediately hooked.

For Christmas the same year I begged my parents for a book about fungi, and I can vividly remember the excitement I felt as my small hands unwrapped it. It was the Observer’s Guide to Mushrooms, Toadstools and Other Common Fungi, a tiny tome packed with photographs, drawings and fungal facts. I can still remember every inch of the minuscule dust jacket, red text above a photograph of fly agaric. For the uninitiated, fly agaric is a fairly common woodland mushroom, but to a young boy in the urban waste of south Birmingham it was the stuff of legend. A shiny red cap flecked with patches of white sat above brilliant unblemished gills, the creation of a madman’s fevered dream. As a teenager I would learn that it is also one of the fabled ‘magic mushrooms’, which made it even more exciting.

It was the names of the mushrooms that drew me in. To the serious mycologist (a fungi expert to you and me) English names for mushrooms are a contentious subject. Just like the hardcore botanists out there, most are of the opinion that English names are an unnecessary dumbing down of perfectly good Latin and Greek binomials. They’re wrong though, because the English names are what make an otherwise impenetrable group accessible to the amateur enthusiast like me. Many English names for fungi were deliberately coined in order to pique the interest of the lay observer, and they range from the whimsical to the horrifying. A few personal highlights include the powdery piggyback, lemon disco, the pretender, dewdrop dapperling, hairy parachute, funeral bell, vampire’s bane, destroying angel (eek!) and the flirt. My favourite was, and still is, the amethyst deceiver. Not only is it an evocative name that makes me think of fantastical worlds, it’s also stunning. Seriously, just look at it.

I’m not a mycologist. I’m not even that good at identifying different types of fungi, but I adore them. That’s part of their beauty, you don’t need to be able to identify them to appreciate them. Another great thing is that you can find them anywhere, even in the winter when many other flora and fauna are engaged in senescence or sleep. There are over 15,000 species in the UK, although admittedly this number includes a large number of species of rust and yeast that don’t entirely tickle my fancy. Fly agaric though…

A final fascinating fact is that the things that most of us thing of as mushrooms are actually just the fruiting bodies, responsible for the production and delivery of countless tiny spores. The really clever stuff happens below the ground, or within whatever medium the fungi is growing within. This is where the mycelium live, incredibly complex networks of delicate microscopic threads that take in the nutrients that give the fungi life. Many of these mycelium are vast, covering a much larger area than the visible fruiting bodies. In this way fungi are very much the icebergs of the terrestrial ecosystems.

Incidentally, the mushroom joke is:

“My dustbin’s absolutely full of toadstools”
“How do you know it’s full?”
“Because there’s not mushroom inside”.

In hindsight it’s a terrible joke.

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