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Mushrooming Possibilities

PUBLISHED: 16:46 20 October 2008 | UPDATED: 15:32 20 February 2013

The chanterelle is edible but, beware, there are other similar-looking fungi that would be much harder to stomach

The chanterelle is edible but, beware, there are other similar-looking fungi that would be much harder to stomach

Do you get your mushrooms mixed up with your toadstools? This November, 'Somerset Life' goes foraging in the woods and finds out some fungi facts. It is estimated that there are more than 1.5 million different species of fungi in the world, and on...

Autumn is the most prolific season for fungi. We can all recognise fungi by their distinctive mushroom-shaped caps but do you get confused about the names - should we call them fungi, mushrooms or toadstools? The term 'fungus' is used to describe an organism that lacks chlorophyll so cannot generate its own nutrients; as a result it has evolved to feed on organic matter. Different species find their nutrients in different ways; some are parasites, growing on live hosts such as trees; most are saprophytes, obtaining their nutrients from decaying matter such as leaf litter and fallen logs.

The main body of a fungus is made up of thread-like hyphae, which form a dense network known as a mycelium. This is akin to the root network of a plant and its purpose is to take nutrients from the medium in which they live, this can be soil, rotting wood, leaf litter or any other substrate, their benefit to us is that they break down waste products that would otherwise build up unchecked. The mushrooms or toadstools are simply the fruiting bodies of the fungi, growing only to produce spores in order that the fungus may disperse to new areas.

It is estimated that there are more than 1.5 million different species of fungi in the world

Although the name mushroom can be used to describe any umbrella-shaped fungal growth, it is generally used to describe a species which is edible, and its commonest use is for the field mushroom, which is the most commonly eaten species of fungus.

So, if mushrooms are the type of fungi that we eat then toadstools are the ones that we don't eat. This is generally true though the two words are often interchanged freely. We aren't the only race to try to distinguish between edible and non-edible fungi in this way; the French now have 'champignon' for their edible species and 'veneneux' (meaning poisonous or venomous) for the inedible, but why do we refer to inedible fungi as toadstools?

Well the 'stool' part of toadstool appears to be a simple reference to the shape of the mushroom, but the reference to the 'toad' is entwined in our history, folklore and some myth. The simplest possible explanation is that the toad's name is used just because it has long been regarded as a poisonous creature. The toad's skin is covered in warts, which secrete a poisonous substance, and we have long had a fear of toads for this very reason - and because they are regarded as fairly ugly. Their poisonous secretions contain a wide range of irritants and some hallucinogens including bufotenine, named after the toad whose scientific name is 'Bufo bufo'. Toadstools have much in common with toads in the sense that some of them could be regarded as quite grotesque and many contain poisons and hallucinogens.

The mushroom is only the top of the iceberg with by far the greatest part of their structure being underground

Identifying different fungi can be very tricky and this is one good reason why novices shouldn't collect and eat them. There are some, though, that can be easily recognised. Probably the best known of all fungi, through its mention in children's fairytales and its association with pixies, is the fly agaric. This is a species with a deadly reputation and it contains two poisons: muscimol, which is hallucinogenic, and muscarine, which can induce vomiting and coma. In the past some people have played with the fly agaric's hallucinogenic qualities but, if taken in sufficient quantity, its poisons are potent enough to kill. Fly agaric toadstools have been used to good effect by crushing them in milk to attract and kill flies, hence its name. The familiar white spots on the cap are the remnants of the protective veil which the toadstool has when it first grows, and these are sometimes washed off by heavy rain. The fly agaric can be found growing under birch and occasionally coniferous trees, with which it shares a symbiotic relationship. The fungus helps the tree by speeding up the breakdown of nutrients in the soil and in return it takes some of the sugars from the roots of its host.

Mushrooms or toadstools are simply the fruiting bodies of the fungi, growing only to produce spores

The rather dully named artist's fungus is so-called because it is possible to write or draw in the white underside of the fungus. Its scientific name, 'Ganoderma adspersum', does more to describe its most obvious feature which is the cocoa-powder-like substance liberally sprinkled over its upper surface, and the ground beneath it ('adspersum' coming from the Latin verb 'aspergo' meaning 'to scatter'). This fungus can grow in profusion and individual brackets reach up to 60cm across. It is usually found growing on mature trees, showing a preference for the beech tree. It will eventually kill the tree but this natural process takes a long time to occur.

'Phallus impudicus' is a distinctive species and hardly needs an interpretation; its more frequently used name is common stinkhorn. As well as an unusual shape it also has a rather strong and unpleasant smell. As with everything in nature the smell has a purpose; in this case it attracts flies to the cap of the toadstool which help to disperse its spores.

The biggest toadstool in Somerset is that of the Dryad's saddle. The tastiest, or so some say, is the chanterelle which is also one of the most vividly coloured, though if you are tempted to eat one beware of the similar false chanterelle which is only edible after careful cooking. The most destructive is probably the honey fungus, which lives in trees both dead and alive. BY DAVID CHAPMAN

Identifying fungi is a challenge but it can get quite addictive, and in the autumn when there are few flowers about they are one of the most colourful aspects of our natural history.

It is possible to find fungi anywhere in Somerset. Probably the most productive habitat in autumn is woodland. Try King's Wood near Cheddar... but coastal grassland such as at Brean Down can be good for some species including waxcaps; even the dunes at Berrow have fungi such as the sand dune brittlecap. The beauty of fungus foraying is that they can occur anywhere in the county.

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