For the Love of Mycology

Mushrooms, Roger Phillips, assisted by Derek Reid, Ronald Rayner, Geoffrey Kibby, and Alick Henrici, designed by Jill Bryan (MacMillan 2006)

In 1981, Roger Phillips began his career in natural history publishing with a book on mushrooms. In 2006, he was back for another bite at the chanterelle. And it would have been a fitting way to end his career, because this is one of the most important books ever published on fungi. It puts its best photo forward for hundreds of pages and hundreds of species, all the way from the massive, like the Giant Puffball, Calvatia gigantea, which can be bigger than a man’s head, to the minute, like the Conifer Disco, Lachnellula subtilissima, which is smaller than a baby’s fingernail. En route, it takes in the gorgeous, the gaudy, and the grotesque, like the Angel’s Wings, Pleurocybella porrigens, the Vermilion Waxcap, Hygrocybe miniata, and the Goliath Webcap, Cortarius praestans. With the g-crew come the delicious, the deadly, and the delicate: the Oyster Mushroom, Pleurotus ostreatus, the Destroying Angel, Amanita virosa, and the Milky Bonnet, Hemimycena lactea. And let’s not forget the phantasmagoric, the phosphorescent, and the phallic: the Devil’s Fingers, Clathrus archeri, the Jack O’ Lantern, Omphalotus illudens, and the Stinkhorn, Phallus impudicus. Which is Latin for “shameless dick”. Fungi can also look like ears, brains, and birds’-nests: the Jelly Ear, Auricularia auricula-judaei, the Morel, Morchella esculenta, and the Common Bird’s Nest, Crucibulum laeve. Oh, and they can look like cages, clubs, and coral too: the Red Cage, Clathrus ruber, the Giant Club, Clavariadelphus pistillarius, and the Violet Coral, Clavaria zollingeri.

And that covers only their appeal, or offence, to the eye and the taste-buds: they can also appeal to, or offend, the nose and fingertips. On olfactory side there are the Coconut Milkcap, Lactarius glyciosmus, the Pear Fibrecap, Inocybe fraudans, the Geranium Brittlegill, Russula fellea, the Mousepee Pinkgill, Entoloma incanum, the Iodine Bolete and Bonnet, Bolitus impolitus and Mycena filopes, and the “Stinking” set: the Brittlegill, Russula foetens, the Dapperling pair Lepiota cristata and L. felina, and the Earthfan, Thelephora palmata. On the tactile side, there are the various Velvets: the Bolete, Suillus variegatus, the Brittlegill, Russula violeipes, the Shank, Flammulina velvutipes, the Shield, Pluteus umbrosus, the Tooth, Hydnellum spongiosipes, and the Toughshank, Kuehneromyces mutabilis. There are too many shaggies, slimies, and slipperies to list, like the Shaggy Parasol, Macrolepiota rhadoces, the Slimy Waxcap, Hygrocybe irrigata, and the Slippery Jack, Suillus luteus. All in all, mushrooms make me muse on Middle-earth. Tolkien’s world is full of richness and variety. So is the world of fungi. The folk and things of Middle-earth can be beautiful or ugly, delicate or sturdy, colourful or drab, tasty or deadly, lovers of light or dwellers in dark. Mushrooms, toadstools, and their smaller relatives are the same. You could find one or more species in this book to match all of Tolkien’s creations: men, wizards, hobbits, elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls, ents, and more. The Cortinarius genus is hobbit-like, for example: stocky, sturdy, and coloured mostly in earthy ochres, yellows, and reds. More elf- and wizard-like are the genera Lepiota and Macrolepiota: these mushrooms are taller and more attractively proportioned. For pre-Tolkienean elves, look to the small and slender Micromphale, Omphalina and Mycena genera, shaped like little umbrellas, bonnets, and parachutes.

For the dark side of Tolkien’s world, look everywhere: almost every group of fungi can supply poisons and sicken or slay the incautious or ignorant. But the deadliest of all are the Amanitas. There’s something suitably and sardonically Sauronic about the modus operandi of the Deathcap, Amanita phalloides:

Poisoning by the Deathcap is characterized by a delay of 6 to 24 hours between ingestion and the onset of symptoms, during which time the cells of the liver and kidney are attacked… The next stage is one of prolonged and violent vomiting and diarrhoea accompanied by severe abdominal pains, lasting for a day or more. Typically this is followed by an apparent recovery, when the victim may be released from hospital or think their ordeal is over, but death results from kidney and liver failure in a few days. (pg. 144-45)

No antidote has yet been discovered to the amatoxins, as the most dangerous compounds are called, and the mortality rate from Amanita poisoning is “still up to 90%”. The Fly Agaric, Amanita muscaria, with its red, white-spotted cap, is the most famous in the genus, but not responsible for the most fatalities. It’s trippily toxic: “a strong hallucinogen and intoxicant, and used as such by the Sami of northern Scandinavia” (pg. 140). Phillips suggests that the Sami began to use A. muscaria by “observing its effects on reindeer”, which “like it so much that all one has to do to round up a wandering herd is to scatter pieces of Fly Agaric on the ground.” Elsewhere in Europe, it was used against flies: the common English name “comes from the practice of breaking the cap into platefuls of milk… to stupefy flies.” Fungi are not plants and form a separate kingdom in biological classification, but they are like plants in the way they can be either delicious, deadly, or dementing.

But if some weren’t so delicious, some others wouldn’t have dealt death so often: the Amanitas are similar in appearance to the Wood mushrooms in the genus Agaricus and can be found in similar places. Agaricus contains some of the most widely eaten of all mushrooms, including the Cultivated Mushroom, A. bisporus, “believed to be the wild form of the many cultivated crop varieties” (pg. 242). But literally cultivated mushrooms don’t compare to wild-grown: I can still remember the richness and flavour of some Field Mushrooms, A. campestris, I picked near the witches’ haunt of Pendle Hill in Lancashire. My other gastro-mycological excursions have included wild-grown puffball and a large Oyster Mushroom that had sprouted from the wood of a sea-side ice-cream stand. It fell off under its own weight, or I wouldn’t have carried it off: Oyster Mushrooms aren’t just good to eat, they’re also good to look at and I would have left it undisturbed otherwise. But picking a mushroom is rather like picking an apple or pear: the visible part is a fruiting body that sprouts from the thread-like hyphae growing in soil, wood, compost, or dung. So you don’t necessarily kill a fungus by picking the part you can see, though you do obviously interfere with its reproduction. The part you can see is what this book is about: unlike David N. Pegler’s Pocket Guide to Mushrooms and Toadstools, there are no drawings of the microscopic spores, merely descriptions: for example, “9-12×5-7μ, elliptical to almond-shaped. Spore-print dark purplish-brown. Chrysocystidia absent. Cheilocystidia lageniform, thin-walled” is in the entry for the Blueleg Brownie, Psilocybe cyanescens.

The fungus itself is described as “hallucinogenic” and “said to be extremely strong” (pg. 253). This book isn’t just for those seeking succulence: it can guide the searcher for synaesthesia too. The Liberty Cap or Magic Mushroom, Psilocybe semilanceata, doesn’t just open the doors of perception: it can throw down the walls of the senses too and make you hear sights or taste colours. The psycho-active psilocybes are all covered and described, but I’ve preferred to leave psycho-mycology alone and get my mental thrills from the look of, and language about, fungi. The scientific names, as always, are interesting, informative, and occasionally uninspired: with a common name like Angel’s Wings, Pleurocybella porrigens has a disappointing scientific name. But there’s a surprisingly complex descriptive vocabulary to learn if you’re interested in acquiring an expertise in these apparently primitive plant-alikes. You’ll even have to dabble in chemistry: the simplest way to distinguish some species is to dip them. The “chrysocystidia” mentioned above are cells “that turn yellowish” – Greek chrysos, “golden”, is hyperbolic – in “alkali solutions”. That’s from the glossary on page 13, but the weird and wonderful words – chlamydospore, dendrophyses, gloeocystidia, lageniform, merulioid, sphaeropedunculate – aren’t illustrated, only defined. This isn’t a textbook of mycology, but an identification guide. And I wouldn’t say it was a work of art like Pegler’s Pocket Guide. It’s well-designed and aesthetically pleasing, but photographs have a superficiality, even a triviality, that Pegler’s drawings don’t. Yes, you can see exactly how the fungi look from a photograph, but there’s no room for the wit and quirkiness I described in my review of the Pocket Guide: the closest you get to the extra-mycological touches I described there is an occasional pine-cone, as in the photos for the Pine Milkcap, Lactarius musteus, the Pinecone Cap, Strobilurus tenacellus, and the Rosy Spike, Gomphidius roseus.

But David Pegler covered far fewer species in a smaller and more subjective book. His science was stronger because he included images of spores, but Roger Phillips has contributed more to mycology, let alone to other fields of natural history. If I had to choose between the two books, I would choose the Pocket Guide, because it’s richer and earthier, and also more minor, in a way that suits its topic better. Fortunately, I don’t have to choose: both books are available for mycophiles and both help explain what is fascinating about fungi. But there are universal aspects to their appeal, beside the particularity of their fungality: maths, the Magistra Mundi, or Mistress of the World, reigns among mushrooms as She reigns everywhere else. Like beetles, though rather more so, fungi are topological variants on a theme: evolution has shaped, squeezed, slendered, squattened, and swollen them over millions of years to produce the huge variety on display in this book. I think architecture can illuminate how they grow: fungi face some of the same problems as architects in erecting and securing their fruiting bodies, but they’re working with less sturdy material. Fungal flesh doesn’t have the toughness and flexibility of wood or the solidity and sturdiness of stone, but it can do surprising things: the Pavement Mushroom, Agaricus bitorquis, is “sometimes found growing through asphalt” (pg. 241).

“Pavement Mushroom”, like “Orange Peel Fungus”, “Purple Stocking Webcap”, “Rooting Poisonpie”, and “Snaketongue Truffleclub”, is one of the odd common names that may catch your eye in the detailed index, which offers specific and generic names, including the outmoded ones that Phillips wanted to update from his early book. But he’s expanded as well as revised, adding some oversea species that “travellers might find on their visits abroad” (introduction, pg. 6). Or might find unexpectedly at home: the Plantpot Dapperling, Leucocoprinus birnbaumii, is a “tropical species that can be found in heated greenhouses” and is shown growing with a potted cactus on page 135. Not illustrated, but mentioned in the entry for the Deathcap, is the “tropical fungus Galerina sulcipes”, which “has a higher α-amanitin content” and is “occasionally found in hothouses” (pg. 145). That would be a sinister note to end on, so instead I’ll end on the Scarlet Elfcup, Sacroscypha austriaca. This is one of my favourite fungi in the book. It is indeed scarlet, it does indeed look like a cup, in the early stages of its growth at least, and its common name is a reminder of why mushrooms are associated with magic and fungi with the fantastic. They can appear very suddenly in unexpected places and have a special association with the melancholy and mystery of autumn. The more elaborate and evolved plant and animal kingdoms are more obvious and found in more places, but they couldn’t exist without fungi, which “break down leaf litter and dead wood and thus ensure that the surface of the world has a fertile layer of soil rather than being a heap of detritus” (pg. 6). In other words: no fungi, no flowers, firs, or figs. In short: no mushrooms, no man. The fungal kingdom isn’t, and can’t be, conscious of the debt owed to it by the other two kingdoms, but this book can be seen as part payment. To see the inhabitants of that mycological Middle-earth in all their variety and strangeness, look no further, because you’ll find no fungaller.

Death and the Midden

Front cover of The Mitchell Beazley Pocket Guide to Mushrooms and Toadstools by David N. PeglerThe Mitchell Beazley Pocket Guide to Mushrooms and Toadstools, David N. Pegler (1982)

A little gem of a book in a consistently excellent natural history series. Rather like its subject, it’s an example of something very rich and rewarding that’s growing quietly in a neglected niche. Representational art, banished from the academies and galleries over the past century, has survived in natural history illustration. When I think of contemporary art that’s moved or delighted me I often think of men like Richard Lewington, illustrator of Field Guide to the Dragonflies of Britain and Europe, and Ralph Thompson, who illustrated Gerald Durrell’s books about animal-collecting in Africa and South America. David N. Pegler’s art is more realistic and detailed than Thompson’s and he may be an even better draughtsman. But if you think he has less scope for quirkiness and humor, with non-animal, let alone non-mammalian, subjects, you’d be wrong. Each of the fungi illustrated here is a finely detailed, delicately tinted portrait in miniature and in situ, often accompanied by the dried leaves or bark or pine-needles of the spot in which Pegler presumably found it. And one of the pleasures of looking through the book is uncovering the unique and often witty touches Pelger has added to some of the portraits. For example, there’s the beetle crawling towards two specimens of Tricholoma portenosum – ‘so good to eat the French call it “Marvellous Tricholoma” (Tricholome merveilleux)’ – and the crumpled sweet-wrapper lying near three Agaricus xanthodermus, the Yellow-staining mushroom found in or on “Parks, roadsides and wasteland”.

But Pegler usually lets the fungi speak for themselves in their bewildering variety of voices from their startlingly wide range of habitats: there are fungi that specialize in sand, marsh, burnt ground, and dung, as well as the more familiar dead wood and leaf-litter. As so often, the English-speaking world still has a lot to learn from the French: where many Brits or Americans are familiar with two or three edible species, the French are familiar with dozens. The Italians, on the other hand, knew a lot about another kind of mushroom during the Renaissance: the poisonous varieties whose symbols – black-skull-on-white-background for “dangerous” and white-skull-on-black-background for “deadly” – add a regular macabre frisson to Pegler’s drawings.

Inner pages of Mushrooms and Toadstools

One of the deadliest fungi, the Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa), is one of the most beautiful too, like an evil young witch out of Grimms’ Fairy Tales: it’s pure white, slender-stemmed, and with lacy clinging veils, but it reveals its true nature by its “heavy soporific smell”. “Do not mistake for Agaricus silvicola”, Pegler warns (the Latin adjective silvicola, meaning “wood-dwelling”, only exists in the feminine form). One of the ways to avoid mistaking the two is that A. silvicola, the Wood mushroom, “smells of aniseed”. Fungi can delight, or revolt, the nose as well as the eye: there’s the Coconut-scented milk-cap (Lactarius glyciosmus) and the Geranium-scented russula (Russula fellea) on the delightful side, and the Nitrous mycena (Mycena leptocephala), “often smell[ing] of nitric acid”, and the Stinking parasol (Lepiota cristata), with its “unpleasant rubbery smell”, on the revolting.

Unless it can assist identification like that, Pegler doesn’t usually say much about any particular fungus, because he’s writing mainly for identification and has to cram hundreds of species into a pocket-sized space. But each species must have its own unique ecological story and Pegler has managed to make his drawings portraits from the wild and not just mycological mug-shots. And each is accompanied by an illustration of its spores, as a further aid to identification and further invitation for the browsing eye. Spores, like fungi themselves, come in many different shapes and sizes. All of which makes this book my favorite in the Mitchell Beazley series. Every book is worth owning or looking at, but the Pocket Guide to Butterflies, for example, has no artistic charm or whimsy. The butterflies are drawn strictly and severely for identification, with nothing accompanying them: no plants, no landscapes, and no jeux d’esprit. And European butterflies don’t come in many varieties or colors: although they often have hidden charms, most of them are frumpish and dowdy when set beside their glittering, gleaming, multi-spectacular cousins from the tropics.

That isn’t true of European fungi, as Pegler demonstrates: both they and their spores come in all shapes, sizes, and patterns. And all colors too. The Hygrocybe genus gleams with reds, yellows, and lilacs, and the species there look much more like magic mushrooms than the genuine article: the unassuming little Liberty Cap, Psilocybe semilanceata, which can open the doors of perception to a world of wonder. Fungi can drive you mad, kill you, or delight your palate, eye, and intellect, and this book captures their richness and variety better than any other I’ve come across. Art, natural history, and culinary guide: it’s all here and The Mitchell Beazley Pocket Guide to Mushrooms and Toadstools is, in its quiet way, a much greater example of European high culture than anything the modern Turner Prize has produced.