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THERE are roughly 15,000 species of fungi growing wild in Britain. You can find fairy rings, penny buns, stinkhorns, white false deathcaps, lurid boletes, horns of plenty, freckled dapperlings, terracotta hedgehogs, deceivers, curry-scented milkcaps, lilac bonnets, jelly tongues, charcoal burners, plums and custard, bonfire cauliflowers or simply sickeners.
When it comes to great names it is hard to beat the common puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum), whose Latin name translates as shiny wolf farts.
Some fungi are delicious but many more are deadly poisonous. That is one reason you should think hard before you venture out into woods and forests to pick wild mushrooms.
Make sure you know exactly what you are picking. Never rely on one source for mushroom identification, and never eat anything unless you are 100 per cent sure it is edible.
Another reason to think hard before picking is that dozens of people have been fined more than £2,000 in total for picking wild mushrooms in Epping Forest in the last year.
The Epping pickers are part of a growing industry that is stripping our wild edible fungi to sell to posh delicatessens, expensive restaurants or even exporting to the chefs of Paris who can’t get enough of their own home-grown French fungi.
Ecologists are warning that stripping any ancient woodland of mushrooms damages its wildlife and threatens rare species because fungi play an incredibly important role in the delicate balance of forest and woodland biodiversity.
Many of the wild mushroom species of Epping are of national importance.
Fungi are important to the health of the forest’s trees, some of which are up to 1,000 years old, as particular fungi species protect tree roots, and provide them with water and vital minerals. Epping has more than a million trees and around 500 rare and endangered insect species.
As the desire for wild fungi has grown in Britain, so too have concerns about illegal commercial foraging in protected woodlands.
While picking wild mushrooms for personal use is acceptable and permitted in most parts of the country, fungi foraging in protected woodland is not. Commercial operations except by the land owners are always illegal.
However, for those who want to make some quick cash and know what to look for, the money to be made in the mushroom season can prove irresistible. Some wild mushrooms sell for £100 a kilo in fashionable London street markets.
Hoovering up edible fungi on a large scale is ecologically damaging and is simply unsustainable. Some picking gangs have had hauls weighing over 100lb (49kg) and worth £5,000 confiscated.
Exotic recipes from TV chefs and in Sunday supplements have seen the demand for exotic fresh and wild ingredients growing in Britain.
By 2018, the Royal Parks had issued a warning about mushroom and chestnut pilfering in Richmond Park and other areas they manage.
The New Forest too has seen hordes of fungi-hunters in search of some of the most delicious and valuable of the forest’s 2,700 species of fungi, including some protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act.
The New Forest is frequently targeted, as are many National Trust properties across the country.
Over recent decades we Brits picked very few wild mushrooms, although the skills of recognition had been well-known among some country folk. Many people were scared about picking and identifying mushrooms.
However there are now many courses and less reliable internet guides. Some recent eastern European immigrants tended to have more of the old skills.
Fungi foraging is still a well-established part of life in the countryside of Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Russia and Croatia.
Now let’s move away from crude commerce and look at some well-known and familiar mushrooms and toadstools that can brighten a woodland walk or may even grow much nearer home.
I have a fairy ring of fungi (Marasmius oreades) on my lawn, I had tried to kill them in the past but now I just leave it alone and enjoy it, hoping one day the fairies might actually visit.
Mushrooms or toadstools are two names for the fleshy, spore-bearing fruiting bodies that certain fungi produce. Here are some of the commonest and most distinctive mushrooms that you may come across.
Some of these are deadly poisonous — don’t use these descriptions to identify them for cooking. Never eat fungi unless you are entirely sure of its identity.
Fly agaric, (Amanita muscaria) is our most distinctive and familiar toadstool, with a brilliant red or orange cap covered with white, wart-like spots.
Underneath the cap, the gills are white. The white stem has a floppy ring and a bulbous base surrounded by fleecy bands.
Up to eight inches (20cm) across and a foot (30cm) tall, it grows on light soils in mixed woodland and heaths among birch, pine and spruce from the late summer to the first frosts of winter.
The common inkcap, (Coprinopsis atramentaria) has been known to push its way through asphalt and lift the corners of paving slabs.
It has a fawn-grey conical cap that’s grooved and often split at the edges the stem is white and hollow. It grows up to six inches (17cm) tall in spring to early winter after rain.
The scarlet elf cup (Sarcoscypha coccinea) is also known as fairies’ baths. Like tiny cups or saucers less than two inches (4cm) across. The upper surface is brilliant red, fading with age to orange.
Scarlet elf cup make a tiny sound when they puff out their spores. They grow on the wetter west side of Britain in early winter to early spring.
Now to the wonderfully named stinkhorn (Phallus impudicus). That Latin name tells you this looks a lot like a human penis. It is recognisable by its foul odour (the fungus not the human thing).
The stinkhorn’s smell attracts flies that transport its spores. They can grow 10 inches (25cm) tall.
The pretty shaggy parasol (Chlorophyllum rhacodes) starts with an egg-shaped and chestnut-brown cap which then opens flat and the outer skin breaks up into shaggy brown scales on a cream background.
It smells sweetly aromatic and grows eight inches (20cm) tall and six inches (15cm) across.
I can’t finish this review of British fungi without mentioning magic mushrooms — hallucinogenic fungi that grow wild, sometimes in huge numbers.
The main types used recreationally are the small and potent liberty cap (Psilocybe semilanceata) and fly agaric.
The Lapps, who live north of the Arctic Circle, use fly agaric. In order to consume the drug content harmlessly they feed the mushrooms to their reindeer and then drink the animal’s pee.
Remember fungi are a huge and fascinating kingdom with over 15,000 species in the UK alone.
Many are microscopically small, but some of the largest organisms on Earth are fungi. An Armillaria ostoyae is the largest known living organism in the world.
One single specimen in Oregon, United States, consists of miles and miles of underground thread-like roots — called continuous mycelium — growing under the forest and covering nearly four square miles, 2,400 acres (11 square km). The entire plant weighs about 35,000 tons (36,000,000kg).
In autumn it produces unremarkable mushrooms as surface fruits. Locals know it as the humongous fungus.
Let’s all try to look after our fungi big or tiny, delicious or fatally poisonous and why not drink their health in reindeer pee?
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