Tuesday 30 October 2018

A trio of Amanitas

The genus of fungi called the Amanitaceae ("The Amanita family" to the layman!) contains about 600 different species, including some of the most poisonous, such as Amanita phalloides, the Deathcap. However it also includes one of the most instantly-recognizable of all fungi - Amanita muscaria, the Fly Agaric. Everybody knows its bright red cap dotted with white spots, surely?

Not everybody recognises a very young Fly Agaric though. They emerge from the ground encased in a cream-coloured lumpy "egg", like this:

As you can see, the colour of the cap is very variable too, ranging from pale yellow to deep red - though the majority are a sort of scarlet colour.

As the mushroom develops, the cap opens out and the stipe (stem) grows longer. I have dug up this "adolescent" one to show the bulbous egg-shaped volva from which the mushroom appears. This part is normally not visible because it is underground.

The next photo shows a typical specimen from underneath. You can see the long, tapering stipe with its ring or "skirt" attached up near the top. The white, "crowded" (closely-packed) gills on the underside of the cap are "free" - in other words they are separated from the stipe by a small gap.

The cap normally reaches a diameter of about 10 - 12cms, but can sometimes be much bigger. The other day I saw one that measured over 25cm.

As seen above, the cap of a mature Fly Agaric sometimes lacks the white spots, since these are really just the remnants of the universal veil (the bit like the egg-shell) from which it emerged, and these can fall off or be washed away by rain.

2018 has been a fantastic year for Amanita Muscaria. In the area where I live (NE Hampshire) there have been literally thousands of them everywhere! I usually only see them in ones and twos, but this year they have appeared in our local (mainly Birch) woods in great profusion.

A final word: this mushroom is definitely not one for eating. Although some people claim it has medicinal properties I think its ingestion is far more likely to induce gastro-intestinal discomfort - or worse - in most people!

A close relative of the Fly Agaric is Amanita rubescens - The Blusher. Unsurprisingly, it shares with its relative many similar characteristics, but instead of a red cap, this one has a cap that comes in several shades of brown and the "spots" (veil remnants) are grey.

Blushers often occur in small groups, rather than singly

You'll recognise many of the features of this mushroom as being similar to the Fly Agaric, though it is often rather more squat and burly. Whilst they do grow very frequently in Birch woodland they are also often found in coniferous forests. My experience is that they don't seem to be as abundant as the Amanita muscaria - though this may just be because they are not as easy to see!

A young Blusher can sometimes be mistaken for an Earthball (e.g. Scleroderma citrinum), and it's easy to see why.



The key identification feature for the Blusher though - as suggested by its name - is that when either the stem or cap is cut it turns red or pink. Look at this gory view...

The pink tinge sometimes takes a few minutes to develop. Here it is only just perceptible.

Some people harvest the Blusher for eating, but I've not tried them because no-one ever seems to describe them as pleasant - just "edible (with care)". In any case, if you are going to eat them, be aware that they need to be very thoroughly cooked.

The third of today's trio is Amanita citrina, the False Deathcap. The epithet "citrina" is attributable to this mushroom's characteristic greeny-yellow cap colour (nothing like a real Deathcap!), although there is a much less common pure white form.

Another distinguishing feature is the fat volva ("egg") from which this mushroom grows. It has a very pronounced ledge or gutter around its top.

Around where I live the False Deathcap is very common indeed, and it is usually the first of the Amanitas to appear each year. This year I first started noticing them in early September, but I think that is later than normal. Perhaps the very hot dry Summer held them back. I find them most often under Beech and Birch trees.

The False Deathcap has a very prominent stem-ring, and whereas in some mushrooms the ring tends to disappear with maturity, this one usually remains even on old specimens.

I'm not sure if this is a viable recognition feature, but looking back over my photos of this mushroom I was struck by what a large proportion of them had split caps, like this:

Again, the split caps may have been caused by the dry weather.

As far as edibility goes, this species is another one which is "Just for looking, not for cooking".

As I said at the start of this post, there are literally hundreds of species of Amanita, but the three I have mentioned are probably the ones most commonly found in the UK. I hope my photos and descriptions will help you to identify them successfully - but just don't eat them, will you?

Wednesday 24 October 2018

In the spotlight: Galerina marginata

Having posted the other day about one of the best edible mushrooms, today I am going to write about one of the most dangerous! This is Galerina marginata, known rather melodramatically as the Funeral Bell.

This unassuming "Little Brown Mushroom" is probably the UK's second deadliest fungus, after the Deathcap (Amanita phalloides). However, don't be too alarmed, because it will only poison you if you eat it. Touching it, even sniffing it, is not going to harm you, though I wouldn't risk a taste-test!

The Galerina marginata supposedly grows most often on conifer stumps or fallen trunks, especially favouring very old, soggy wood. The ones I have seen have been on what I think is Birch wood, though it is hard to be sure when the wood is very old.

They usually appear in groups, often in the shadiest damp spots, like underneath a log.

Because of this, their stems are often curved or bent at approximately 90 degrees.

The cap of this mushroom is tan coloured, sometimes quite dark, but more often a lighter shade sometimes described as "rufous brown". Larger specimens can reach about 7cm in diameter, but most are a lot smaller than this; maybe 3 - 5cm. Curiously (considering its common name) the shape of the cap is not really bell-shaped. In young specimens it is more domed or hemispherical, but when they get older the caps flatten out. This particular one is quite dome-shaped.

The second part of this mushroom's name - "marginata" - alludes to the fact that its cap usually has a dark centre with a distinct, paler margin, which you can clearly see here:

The cap margin is also often "striate", meaning that it has lines or ridges ("striations") radiating out from the centre, as shown in the next photo.

As mentioned, the stems of these mushrooms (which can reach 7cm, but are normally somewhere between 2 and 5cm long) are often curved, or contorted, like the one in the next photo. They are usually buff-coloured where they meet the cap, but much darker at the base. They are also "longitudinally fibrillose" which means they have stringy fibres running down their length.

The stem has a fragile ring (also visible in the photo above), which often disappears by the time the mushroom is mature.

The gills are very crowded, and much paler than the top surface of the cap. They are "broadly adnate to partially decurrent", which means that they are firmly attached to the stem and run down it a little way (see photo below). The spores that fall from them are described as being "snuff-brown", which to me looks a bit greenish - perhaps "olivaceous"?

The season for Galerina marginata to fruit is quite long, ranging from late Summer right into the Winter. In the 3 years in which I have been seriously studying fungi, I have seen this one mainly in October, but also as late as early December.

Young Galerina - 16 Dec 2017

Lookalikes: I suppose it might be possible to confuse this mushroom with the superficially similar Kuehneromyces mutabilis - Sheathed Woodtuft - which some people harvest for eating. The primary distinguishing factor is that the caps of Kuehneromyces mutabilis tend to dry out from the centre outwards, leaving a light centre and dark edge, whereas Galerina marginata is the other way round. This next photo might possibly be of Kuehneromyces mutabilis, but even if it isn't, it certainly shows a couple of light caps with dark edges!

Sunday 21 October 2018

Spotlight on the Cep mushroom

In the world of fungi there are some types that are considered great delicacies, and top of the list of these is surely the Boletus edulis, also known as the Cep, Porcino, King Bolete and Penny Bun.

Although I'm always searching for these, I have never had great success with finding them. I see them in ones and twos, never in large numbers, though some people do (particularly those who forage in the New Forest, I hear). The Cep is an "obligately mycorrhizal" fungus: in other words it cannot grow without the help of a tree, with which it forms a mutually-beneficial relationship. For this reason it is not found on open grassland, but equally it seems to like light and is normally found at the edge of a wood or forest clearing. Ceps seem to prefer growing with Beech and Birch trees. This one was in very open mixed Birch / Oak woodland:

This pair was found in long grass, but only a few metres from trees:

Some people have considerable difficulty with identifying Ceps and one of the reasons for this is their great variability of shape, size and colour. These ones are very pale (they are the ones shown in the previous photo too. The long grass has evidently shielded them from the light.)

This is a close-up of the one I found in the open woodland. It's a lot darker. (and if you look back you will see that it had a much taller stipe (aka stem).

Incidentally, that photo also shows another important identification feature for the Cep. Their caps normally have a distinct white margin, which shows up very well here.

Small specimens of this mushroom are often very hard to spot, and conceal themselves well in the leaf-litter, like this one.

But just occasionally you get one that stands out above its surroundings. The white stem colour certainly helps with spotting them!

These are also Ceps, but big old ones, which were lurking underneath some heather. The one posed in front was quite big (about 15cm diameter) and the two squishy ones behind it were a lot bigger.

The Cep is a bolete type of mushroom, and boletes have pores underneath their caps, not gills. For clarity, this is an example of a fungus with gills (in this case a Brown Rollrim, Paxillus involutus).

This photo shows the underside of a Cep, with pores, which form a spongy layer beneath the main flesh of the cap. They are white when young.

When they are old, the pores turn yellow and eventually a sort of muddy green.

Another major identification feature for the Cep is the net-like pattern of lines on its stipe (or stem), referred to as "reticulation". These are usually most apparent at the top of the stipe, just below the cap, as shown here.

Incidentally, stem/stipe shape is definitely NOT a good identification point. Some are tall and comparatively thin; some are very short and fat; and some are pear-shaped like this one!

Since this mushroom is clearly a choice edible, I must say something about cooking it. Because of its relative rarity in our area, we tend to consider this type a special treat. Other mushrooms get "lumped together" with different types in our recipes, but we usually keep the Ceps separate. Our favourite way to cook them is to slice them (stems as well as caps) and dry-fry them over a medium heat for a few minutes, until they go golden brown at the edges, then add a knob of butter just before serving. Done like this they are great with scrambled eggs! Most mushrooms release a fair bit of moisture when they are heated, so it's best not to add any oil, butter or liquid until they are nearly fully cooked. To be perfectly honest, I think a fresh Cep is quite mildly flavoured, so I have recently started drying some, which will hopefully concentrate the flavour. Dehydrated mushrooms keep for ages and don't take up a lot of room, so this is a great way to preserve them for later use if you find yourself with too many to eat immediately...

By the way, I'll be doing more of these "Mushroom spotlight" posts on my blog in the near future, because I have run out of steam with writing about gardening subjects, and it is currently prime wild mushroom season.

Wednesday 17 October 2018

Fungi hunting

I'm sure that many readers already know that I'm keen on hunting fungi - to photograph them, and if appropriate, bring them home for use in the kitchen. Over the last three years I have learned a lot about fungi (mostly with the help of a couple of Facebook Groups and a website called First Nature), and I can now confidently identify lots of different varieties. More to the point, we have eaten many of the well-known edible species, like Chicken of the Woods, Chanterelles, Ceps, St.George's Mushrooms and Hedgehog Mushrooms.

Fungi are all around us. They grow in all sorts of different habitats, sometimes in some very strange places, and if you know what to look for you are almost bound to see some every time you go outdoors. My eyes have become attuned to looking for fungi - I can spot a mushroom at 100 paces these days! Fortunately I live in an area rich with different species, and there are several stretches of woodland full of fungi within easy reach of our house. There are supposedly about 15,000 types of fungi in the UK alone, and sometimes I think I have seen them all. But then next time I go out hunting I find something completely new... 

To illustrate the diversity of fungi in our area I am going to post today some photos that were all taken within the space of an hour and a half last Saturday afternoon - and within an area of approximately 50 metres by 300 metres!

This was the best find - Boletus edulis, aka Cep / Penny Bun / Porcino - popularly reckoned to be the best edible mushroom. Young ones like this are very mild-flavoured though.

This is the Brown Birch Bolete. Not as nice as the Cep, but much more common, and a nice edible species.

Perhaps the most readily recognised one is the Fly Agaric, Amanita mascaria. Not good to eat though because they are toxic. There are huge numbers of these this year.

Perhaps the most common fungus of all here in our local (predominantly Birch) woodlands is Fomitopsis betulina, the Birch Polypore. You can use these to make an infusion with (allegedly) health-giving properties, but by all accounts it is very bitter, so I haven't been tempted to try it.

This weird one is Helvella crispa - White Saddle, which I regularly see in one particular area, every year.

This one is more unusual. It is one of the Otidia family, probably Otidia onotica, Hare's Ear Fungus.

This is Clitopilus prunulus, The Miller, so-called because of its colour and its scent of damp flour. On Saturday I found a few, but they were very small and though edible, didn't make it into any of our meals.

This is Cortinarius hemitrichus, the Frosted Webcap. The Cortinarius family are generally ones to avoid, because many of them are very poisonous (only if eaten, of course).

My next one is Suillus bovinus, the Bovine Bolete, aka The Jersey Cow. It looks as if it should be a good one to eat, but is popularly reckoned to be only just edible, because it goes slimy when cooked.

This one is definitely edible though - it is the Chanterelle, Cantharellus cibarius. On Saturday I visited a spot where these grow, but I only found two tiny ones. Hopefully more will appear in the next few weeks.

One of my favourite mushrooms to eat is the dramatic Parasol, Lepiota procera. Unfortunately this isn't one! It is a confusingly similar-looking toxic variety called the Stinking Dapperling, Lepiota cristata.

I'm not 100% sure what this one is. It's evidently a Lactarius (Milkcap) species, because you can see 'milk' oozing from the gills of one of them, but I don't know which. I'm thinking possibly Alder Milkcap - Lactarius obscuratus, or Birch Milkcap - Lactarius tabidus.

This is the ubiquitous Trametes versicolor, Turkey Tail. It comes in lots of colours ranging from blue through grey to brown. You can see several different colours just on this one log.

Another fungus that has fruited in huge numbers this year is the Amanita citrina - False Deathcap. My photo probably doesn't do it justice, but it has a distinctly yellowish-green hue. An interesting identification feature is that when cut this mushroom smells strongly of raw potatoes. As far as I know I haven't yet seen a real Deathcap, Amanita phalloides, which is surprising since they are supposedly quite common in the South of England.

The next one is also an Amanita - Amanita rubescens, The Blusher (it turns pink / red when cut). I'm including a rather different type of photo for this species - one which homes in on another well-recognised identification feature. The "skirt" on the stem of this mushroom has clear ridges / lines called striations, which help to distinguish between it and a poisonous relative, Amanita pantherina - Panther Cap.

This rather unassuming little chap is a Mycena epiptergyia - Yellowleg Bonnet. From above it's hard to see where it gets its name.

You have to look underneath... Look, it has a yellow stem!

We're nearly finished now. I just have to show you a couple of what I call "NYKs" (Not Yet Known). This one is certainly in the LBM (Little Brown Mushroom) category. You can get an idea of its size by comparing it to the Birch leaves through which it is growing.

My last photo for today is of the smallest mushrooms I saw that afternoon. I don't know what they are, but they were growing out of a small pine-cone.

So there you are -  18 different fungus species all seen in one afternoon - and of course this post of mine doesn't include the ones I didn't photograph because I thought them too mundane or too repetitive, like the horrible Brown Rollrim, Paxillus involutus, which is everywhere this year.

Maybe you can now understand better why I am so interested in fungi? The more you learn about them, the more fascinating this subject becomes. Regrettably, British people are still largely fungi-phobic, and fungi are often perceived to be sinister and threatening rather than attractive and sometimes delicious to eat. In the last generation or two we have seen a considerable influx of people from Eastern Europe, where attitudes to fungi are generally the opposite to ours, so maybe things will gradually change? I hope so.