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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Monday 17th October 2011

I got involved in a discussion of whether this has been a particularly bad year for mushrooms. It took place on an Internet forum and began with someone saying they hadn’t been able to collect any field mushrooms this year and wondering about other people’s experiences.

I’ve blogged before about how early I saw Amanita muscaria, fly agaric, in the place I’ve seen it before and I wondered, given that this was a full month earlier than last time, if the weather conditions this year had caused fungi to fruit early.

Amanita muscaria, fly agaric

Amanita muscaria, fly agaric

A very brief primer on fungi and mushrooms. Fungus grows underground, or rather below the surface, and different species like different types of surfaces to be below. That rather awkward sentence was to try and allow for those species of fungi that live beneath the ground and those that live in the tissue of dead trees. The different beneath the ground types may be a reflection of the presence of dead wood in the soil or the different chemical make-up of the soil as a result of different animals defecating in the area and the in the wood of dead trees types vary depending on the species of tree.

To reproduce, a fungus needs to spread spores and those spores are delivered into the open by being carried on the underside of a mushroom. Mushrooms are actually fruiting bodies but they rarely get called that.

You will often hear people complaining about mushrooms in the lawn ‘again’ even though they removed all of the ‘fungus’ last year when it appeared. That’s a failure to appreciate that you don’t see the fungus, you just see the fruit and, as I mentioned with plants like Heracleum mantegazzianum, giant hogweed, living things exist to produce fruit and multiply so removing mushrooms thinking you are getting rid of the fungus may just lead to more mushrooms appearing as the fungus tries to defeat your efforts to stop it multiplying.

Amanita muscaria, fly agaric

Amanita muscaria, fly agaric

A number of people commented that they’d found a shortage of mushrooms this year though one said he’d had a bumper harvest. Mind you, he also said it had been a long hot summer so he must have had very different weather from most people. Or the mushrooms he’d collected weren’t simply edible field mushrooms.

Of course, being an Internet forum, there were those who thought collecting mushrooms was a dangerous thing to do even if you thought you knew what they were.

There’s something odd about the British and mushrooms. First of all, we’re the only nation that has toadstools. Toadstools aren’t some botanically different thing. It’s just a name given to some types of mushrooms by some people and it adds to the British confusion about mushrooms because people think mushrooms are OK, toadstools are poisonous.

But the main British oddity about mushrooms is that the belief is that the majority of species are deadly poisonous. There are a lot of different types of mushroom and some are very toxic but the reality is that most are just not pleasant to eat. If you took every species of mushroom and made three piles, one for the edible, one for the toxic and a third for the non-toxic, non-edible, you’d have two very small piles and one huge stack.

Amanita muscaria, fly agaric

Amanita muscaria, fly agaric

There’s really no reason to be concerned about foraging for mushrooms, if you know what to look for, though getting to know what to look for could be a problem.

Because people ask about poisonous mushrooms and because Amanita muscaria has some of the best stories, I thought I should learn more and I bought a book that promised to tell me all I needed to know. The author described all different sorts of mushrooms explaining where and when to find them and how to separate the edible from the not very tasty and the toxic. But, then, at the very end of the book, he said that the best way to learn which mushrooms to collect and eat was to go out foraging with someone who already knew.

I thought it was a bit of a con to get me to buy a book and spend quite a bit of time reading it before telling me I’d wasted both time and money because I still shouldn’t trust myself to collect mushrooms based on what I’d read. I suppose, that statement was added at the behest of the publisher and its lawyers as a ‘Don’t try and sue’ protection but it was a bit disappointing.