2019: memorable year for fungi

10/11/2019

There was a hard frost across the whole of the UK on Saturday (yesterday) morning. This will signal the beginning of the end of this year’s autumn fungi season, a full month earlier than it ended last year. It has been a memorable year, of the sort that occurs only once or twice in an average decade.

Parasol Mushroom (Macrolepiota procera)

It started late. There was a fairly typical selection of late summer fungi around in mid-August, but September was dry and for some reason I won’t even speculate on, the fungi suffered even worse than normal for a dry period. By the middle of that month there were absolutely no fungi to be found apart from the woody perennials which are always present. This caused something of a backlog of species waiting to fruit. Then in the last week of September the rains came. And it rained, and rained, and rained some more.

Penny Bun (Boletus edulis)

About a week into October, a wide variety of species started fruiting in spectacular style. This included a number of the larger, well-known edible woodland species, as well as some of the most visible grassland species, especially Parasol Mushrooms. This meant they got noticed, even by people who don’t usually pay any attention to our fungal friends. It was a particularly good autumn for the most famous edible species of them all: the Penny Bun (Cep/Porcino). I was still finding these today, though well past their best for eating.

Some other species had a bad year. Notably there has hardly been any Chicken of the Woods. When this species failed to turn up in the spring, I did wonder if it would fruit more enthusiastically than normal in the autumn, but I’ve not seen it at all. It had a good year in 2018, so it seems it was taking a year off. Horn of Plenty has also been very patchy, and absent in many areas.

Deathcap (Amanita phalloides)

Until very recently, it was also looking like a dreadful year for the most famous poisonous species.  I found a few Deathcaps on my first private session of the year, on August 24th, but they then disappeared. Deathcaps are typically an early autumn fruiter, and so when I still wasn’t finding any at the start of November, I figured they too had decided to give 2019 a miss. Then on Thursday (Nov 7th) I was just on my way home from a session and glimpsed some fungi growing on a bank. I didn’t immediately recognise them as Deathcaps because they were enormous. Probably the biggest examples of that species I have ever seen. Today was my last session of the year, and we found another huge patch of them (normal-sized this time).

Winter Chanterelle (Craterullus tubaeformis)

All good things come to an end, but there’s still one species out there to be found in great abundance and it will probably survive the frost. Winter Chanterelles are the last of the famous edibles to have a great year in 2019.

 

 

Parasol Mushrooms going absolutely mental

11/10/2019

Every autumn some species of fungi have a good year and others have a bad year. Sometimes we get a mass-fruiting of a particular species, or a particular group. In 2017 it was Horn of Plenty and its relatives. Last year it was Fly Agarics. This year, in truly spectacular style it is Parasol Mushrooms and all the other species in its genus (Macrolepiota). I cannot recall ever seeing a mass-fruiting of Parasol Mushrooms (M. procera) as the one that has appeared in the last few days. I’ve also seen the biggest mass-fruiting I can remember of its much smaller relative M. excoriata (no common name). This is true all over Kent and Sussex, and reports from elsewhere in the country suggest it is the same as far away as Devon and Northamptonshire.

A large ring of Parasol Mushrooms

Why they do it — why this year it is the year of the Parasols and not something else — is anybody’s guess. It isn’t just down to conditions right now. It might be something to do with the weather over the previous 12 months, or if they had a particularly bad year last year (for example). It isn’t just the parasols either. A lot of other grassland species are currently fruiting in numbers, including Agaricus species and various sorts of puffballs, both of which are members of the same family as the Parasols (Agaricaceae),

Second huge ring of Parasol Mushrooms, in the same field

as well as unrelated species like Fairy Ring Champignons (Marasmius oreades) and Entoloma species.

There are also some woodland species doing well, especially the saprophytes, but a lot of the symbiotic woodland species are having a very bad year. I’ve seen very few Blushers (Amanita rubescens), and they are usually very abundant. The same is true of most other Amanita species (with the exception of Fly Agaric), and a lot of the Russulas.

I’m not even going to try to predict what is going to happen next, but I will let my readers know as soon as there’s anything worth blogging about.

Massive glut of fungi in southern England

06/10/19

Larch boletes, The Miller and a Penny Bun

Well, that was a while coming. Two weeks ago, for only the second time in ten years, I had to start cancelling events because of a lack of fungi. There were no ground-fruiting species at all, and not much wood-fruiting species either. Then it started raining, but not much happened. By last weekend there were Fly Agarics in some places, but very little else. On Wednesday I took a group out and in three hours we found a grand total of two Hedgehog Mushrooms and one Bay Bolete. I postponed Thursday’s session.

Then, some time between Wednesday night and Saturday morning, the fungi exploded into life. Masses of boletes, parasols and many other species, and the biggest glut of Field Mushrooms I’ve ever seen. So it seems now I have a very good measure of how long it takes for the ground-fruiting fungi to respond to a major soaking after a drought-induced mushroom famine. The answer is between 11 and 13 days.

Penny Buns and Chanterelles doing well.

26/08/2019

Mushroom season 2019 has started with a slow ramp-up rather than a spectacular burst of activity. After last year’s weird weather, something resembling normality has returned. We’ve had enough rain over the summer to ensure that the summer-fruiting fungi have been appearing continually since June, though rarely in large quantities until now.

Penny Buns (Cep, Porcini, Boletus edulis) are having a particularly good year, although I am not finding anything like as many of the other large boletes. I’ve seen a handful of Dark Penny Buns (Boletus aereus) and Summer Boletes (B. reticulatus), but nothing like the torrent of these two species that were around this time last year. Quite a few Chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius) patches are also fruiting prolifically, and I came across a mass-fruiting of Amethyst Chanterelles (C. amethysteus) on Saturday. Black Trumpets (Craterellus cornucopiodes) are just starting to come through in some places too, although it is too early to say whether it is going to be a bumper year for those. There’s also a decent selection of Brittlegills (Russula sp.) and Amanitas fruiting, including Deathcaps (Amanita phalloides).

Hopefully we aren’t going to have any record-breaking temperatures in September, and can look forward to a more typical mushroom season than we’ve been subjected to recently.

Your child has just eaten a wild mushroom? Don’t bother calling the NHS.

19/07/2019

At least once a week during the summer, much more frequently in the autumn, I am contacted by desperate parents worried about their child (or dog) having eaten a wild mushroom. Quite a few of these people have already tried phoning 999 or 111, and got an inappropriate and unhelpful response. I’m not talking about the situation where a child is showing worrying symptoms and the parents think they might have eaten a mushroom. These people know this has happened, and they’ve got a photograph of the offending fungus.

Taking a photograph is exactly the right thing to do, because in the unfortunate case where the mushroom in question in one of the really dangerous ones then responding quickly with the correct medical procedure is crucial to minimising the damage. Unfortunately, the NHS response is the wrong one. I’ve tried googling it myself, and this page illustrates the problem. I’ve also phoned 111. The person I spoke to tried to help, but was only able to quote/follow the same inadequate procedure.

The problem is that the NHS responds by asking questions about symptoms of poisoning instead of attempting to visually identify the fungus from the photo. The worried parents are often making this call immediately after consumption has taken place, but even the most fast-acting mycotoxins take at least thirty minutes to kick in. The most lethal of all can take several hours, even though those toxins are being absorbed into the bloodstream. If you wait until the victim is displaying symptoms of poisoning, or even worse, until there has been positive result in a toxicology test, then damage may already have been done. It may be too late to save them. And yet in many cases, if you can access somebody with the correct knowledge, the fungus can be identified from the photo in seconds. This can either end the emergency (99% of the time it turns out the mushroom is harmless), or confirm that the mushroom is indeed toxic, and provide accurate information about which toxins are involved and what the response needs to be. Immediately.

So what can be done about this?

Doubtless people will continue to contact me, and I will do my best to help them, but I am not an emergency service and I don’t always answer my phone. There is a helpful Facebook group called Poisons Help; Emergency Identification For Mushrooms & Plants, though not everybody uses Facebook or owns a smartphone. There are many other places online where mushrooms are identified, but not reliably. The internet is full of bad information, and sometimes it takes an expert to tell. There are too many people who over-estimate their ability to identify fungi from photos, or confidently misidentify things having failed to even ask where in the world the photo was taken. Mistakes are frequent, including both toxic species misidentified as edible and edible ones falsely condemned as poisonous.

There really does need to be a change to the procedures followed by the staff who man the 111 lines, and anywhere else in the NHS where people are going to receive this sort of enquiry. The rule needs to be this: if a photo has been supplied then your first response, after establishing that there aren’t any immediate symptoms, must be to attempt to accurately identify the species involved. The NHS should have procedures in place so they know how to do this, instead of telling callers to 111 that they have no idea how to help. If your child has eaten a Deathcap, you shouldn’t have to end up having to navigate your own way through the murky and confusing world of internet mycology, and hope that you end up in contact with somebody who is able to help. As things stand, avoidable deaths or permanent and serious organ damage could very easily occur.

Here are four of the most dangerous toxic mushrooms found in the British Isles:

Deathcap (Amanita phalloides)

Fool’s Funnel (Clitocybe rivulosa)

Livid Pinkgill (Entoloma sinuatum)

Deadly Fibrecap (Inocybe erubescens) (photo by Andrea Kunze)

 

 

Edible Seaweeds of the Welsh Wild West

09/07/19

The stunning Pembrokeshire coast

We have just got back from a week of Welsh sunshine on what is arguably the most spectacular coastline anywhere in the British Isles. It was a busman’s holiday for me, the main reason we were there being that I could search for seaweeds I can’t find in south-east England. Pembrokeshire is a seaweed forager’s dream: crystal clear water, large tidal ranges and a wide variety of different rocky habitats from sheltered to very exposed. And it is these most exposed areas which provide a home for species I don’t find at home. This post covers three of them.

Sea Spaghetti (Himanthalia elongata)

The first of these – Sea Spaghetti (Himanthalia elongata) – I do occasionally find washed up after stormy weather when walking my dog in Hastings, but I have no idea where it has come from, and it is not advisable to eat detached seaweeds, because you can’t tell how long they’ve been dead. The nearest place on the south coast I have ever found it growing is 150 miles west at Lulworth Cove in Dorset, and travelling anti-clockwise round the British coast from there it is rare or absent until you reach Yorkshire, only becoming common near the Scottish border. Sea Spaghetti is an almost hypnotically beautiful species of seaweed, because of the way its long fronds twist and turn with the movement of the water. I could watch it for hours, if it wasn’t for the fact that it is only fully visible when the tide is very low. In the kitchen it is usually used as a substitute for real spaghetti, either completely or 50/50. As such it provides a naturally gluten-free alternative to wheat spaghetti. Like most seaweeds it dries well, and in this case you should make sure it also dried straight, which makes for easier storage.

Flattened Acidweed (Desmarestia ligulata)

There are no poisonous seaweeds – at least not in the sense that we normally think of “poisonous”, but the second of my threesome is about as close to poisonous as a seaweed gets. It belongs to a genus (Desmarestia) that are sometimes called “Sea Sorrels”, which might mislead you into thinking they are good to eat. The land sorrels are excellent salad vegetables, with a tangy, lemon-like taste caused by the presence of oxalic acid. Desmarestia have another common name which might mislead you into thinking they are psychoactive: “Acid Weed”. Unfortunately, the acid in question is the sulphuric variety. Yes, you read that right, these seaweeds contain battery acid. Their internal pH is around 0.5, and if they break open in a container with other seaweeds, they will wreak havoc, destroying everything in the container, including themselves. I’ve never found and identified any of them before, but on one location near an old slate quarry, there was quite a lot of what I believe to be Desmarestia ligulata (which has various common names, such as “Flattened Acid Weed”).

Atlantic Wakame or Winged Kelp (Alaria esculenta)

However, I didn’t travel to the other side of the country to find Sea Spaghetti or Acid Weed; I was there to find the only significant edible native British seaweed I did not have a book-quality photograph of (I am currently working on a book on edible plants and seaweeds). Its Asian relative Wakame (Undaria pinnatifida) is very important in Japanese cuisine. Alaria esculenta has a confusing collection of English common names, including Badderlocks, Dabberlocks and Winged Kelp, but I shall call it Atlantic Wakame. It is reasonably common on exposed rocky coasts from Cornwall, all the way around clockwise to the equally-wild north-east coast of Scotland, but absent on the south and east coasts of England. What makes these Wakame species different from other kelps, both biologically and in

Dorothy inspection

terms of their food use, is their midrib. The midrib is perfectly edible (it is sweet and crunchy and can be eaten raw), but it is the other parts of the blade that are use for salads in Japan. The midrib provides structural support for the blade, which means the “wings” (the rest of the blade) are considerably more tender than other types of kelp, requiring less cooking (or less chewing).

Atlantic Wakame is at its best from early spring until about now. We just had some in a salad for our lunch. Recipe is described below.

Japanese-style Atlantic Wakame Salad

Ingredients:

  • 4 large blades Atlantic Wakame

    Atlantic Wakame Salad

  • 3 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 1 tbsp fresh lime juice
  • 1 tbsp light soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp finely grated ginger
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • 1 tbsp vegetable oil
  • pinch of sea salt
  • one thinly sliced small home grown cucumber
  • two thinly sliced shallots
  • sprinkle of yellow and black sesame seeds.

Method:

Bring a saucepan of water to the boil. Add the seaweed, bring back to the boil, then remove saucepan from the heat and let the seaweed soften for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, in a bowl, mix the rice vinegar, lime juice, soy sauce, honey, oils and and grated ginger. Whisk in vegetable oil and toasted sesame oil and season with salt. Drain the seaweed, rinse under cold water and pat dry. Remove the midribs and slice. Mix the seaweed well with the sliced cucumbers and scallions, then spoon the dressing over it and garnish with toasted sesame seeds. Serve immediately.

Early summer fungi enjoying the damp weather

19/06/2019

2019 is turning out to be a good year for the early summer fungi. They clearly appreciate the damp weather, after last year’s relentless heatwave. All the fungi mentioned below are edible, with the arguable exception of False Chanterelle.

Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus)

The spring fungi were a little disappointing – the Morels had an average year at best and the St George’s Mushrooms appeared just before the hot weather over Easter, and got sizzled in southern England before they even had a chance to drop any spores. They are all long gone now. The two common spring bracket fungi also had an unexceptional year. Chicken of the Woods is about, but patchily and unenthusiastically, and not fruiting at all in some places. This is not surprising after last year’s bumper crop of this species, because fungi often have a quiet year after a strong one. Small fruit bodies are also appearing in places I’ve not seen it before (photo taken last week, half way up a very steep sided ghyll on my local dog walk). Dryad’s Saddle is doing a little better, but is already well past its best for eating in most locations.

Chanterelles (Cantharellus cibarius)

It’s the ground-fruiting early summer mushrooms that are doing better than normal. Chanterelles are abundant, with reports coming in of large fruitings from everywhere they are commonly found in the British Isles, although I’ve only seen a handful locally. It’s not unusual for these to fruit in July, but a little surprising for them to be quite so abundant before midsummer. I’ve also seen one find of False Chanterelles posted online, the first time I seen these before August.

Our daughter Dorothy tucking into a Horse Mushroom

Various species of Agaricus (relatives of the Cultivated Mushroom and Field Mushrooms) are about, including Horse Mushrooms and their poisonous lookalikes the Yellow Stainers. I have also seen a few Pavement Mushrooms, not in their typical roadside habitat but in my own greenhouse, underneath a cucumber plant. I have seen no sign of any Field Mushrooms.

Several other members of their family (Agaricaceae) are also fruiting. Giant Puffballs have been reported across much of southern

England and northern continental Europe. It is not unusual to see these fruiting in June, although typically they appear a little later. And Brown Parasols (close relative of Shaggy Parasol) have turned up in my mother-in-law’s garden.

Brown Parasol (Chlorophyllum brunneum)

The Blusher is fruiting here and there – the only Amanita I’ve seen so far. This is expected – it is a common species and occasionally fruits as early as May.

Poplar Fieldcaps (an under-rated delicacy) are also fruiting. These can appear at almost any time of year, and are well worth looking out for. They are large mushrooms, so you are unlikely to miss them.

As for the boletes, I’ve seen one picture posted online of what looked like a Scarletina Bolete. This morning I also found a Miller in my local

Scarletina Bolete (Neoboletus luridiformis)

park. These aren’t boletes, but they are associated with them (either parasitically or symbiotically, mycologists aren’t sure) and often fruit at the same time, so I am keeping an eye out for some more.

And finally there are a few Brittlegills about, with more appearing all the time.

If the current weather pattern stays the same then it is likely there will be a steady stream of fungi appearing right through the rest of the summer. It is the exact opposite of last year, when the hot weather made life rather difficult for them.

The Miller (Clitopilus prunulus)

Slipper Limpets with dulse garlic butter

23/04/2019

Atlantic Slipper Limpet (Crepidula fornicata)

It is so often the case with wild food that responsible collecting behaviour requires you only to take what you need, and leave the rest for nature. Exactly the opposite is true is when the species you are after is an invasive alien, and in a few cases these invasive species are first class edibles. The perfect example is the Atlantic Slipper Limpet (Crepidula fornicata).

Slipper Limpets are native to the Atlantic coast of North America. They have been repeatedly introduced to northern Europe, the first record being in 1872 in Liverpool Bay. They are now very common along the entire southern coastline of Great Britain, from Pembrokeshire to The Wash. Where conditions are to their liking, their numbers can increase to plague proportions, and they cause serious problems for native filter-feeding marine molluscs, especially oysters. Slipper Limpets both out-compete the native species for food, and smother them in the fine silt they eject after feeding. In the worst cases, their presence has resulted in the total destruction of important oyster fisheries.

Washed slipper limpets with fresh dulse

They are under-utilised as a food resource. There is apparently no commercially viable market for them, which causes fishermen problems, since it is illegal to return them to the water if they are dredged up as bycatch. It is not clear why this should be, since they are very tasty and highly regarded in as food in a few places. They are not tough like Common Limpets (Patella vulgata). They are in season from early autumn until early spring. It is best practice not to collect them for food during the summer, because as filter feeders there is a greater possibility that they have been consuming toxic algae. Now (late April) is a good time.

Slipper Limpets with dulse garlic butter

They can be found in sandy or muddy areas during low tides. They are easily recognised by their distinctive shell shape and their tendency to live in stacks. The creatures change sex during their lifetime. They start out male, with the smaller males attaching frequently themselves to the top of an existing stack. As they get larger, with more and more smaller individuals on top of them, they turn into females, so they are continually next to a mate (hence the specific epithet “fornicata”). These stacks are permanent – the slipper limpet’s shell grows to exactly fit whatever they are attached to, so after a while it becomes impossible for them to find anywhere else to attach to. Being dislodged is therefore fatal, since they are totally exposed to predation, which means you often find a detached stack where the bottom-most shell is empty.

More frequently the bottom limpet is attached to a large pebble, and this poses a challenge when collecting them. Since you do not want to end up having to carry a load of pebbles around, you need to separate the stack of limpets from the pebble, and this can only be done quickly. You need to creep up on them and grab the whole stack, then immediately rip the bottom limpet from the pebble. Within two or three seconds, if you have not succeeded in doing so, the limpet will clamp down and it becomes much more difficult.

A cocktail stick is sometimes required to extract the internal part of the slipper limpet, which easily breaks off of the foot.

When you’ve finished collecting, you should give them a good rinse in clear seawater. When you get your haul back home, wash them again in fresh water. You do not need to leave them sitting in salt water overnight as is recommended for some other marine molluscs (such as winkles). They can be eaten raw, but it to be 100% safe it is surely best to cook them. They only need brief cooking. I usually just boil them for two or three minutes.

They should be served with garlic butter, with a bit of salt and pepper (and not too much garlic). The perfect finishing touch, if it is available from the same beach, is some finely chopped Dulse (Palmaria palmata) in the garlic butter. This red seaweed adds a lovely umami taste which does not overpower the abalone-like taste of the slipper limpets.

Reedmace Hearts

Greater Reedmace (Typha latifolia), early April 2019

06/04/2019

Reedmace (otherwise but incorrectly known as “Bullrush”)(Typha spp.) is a semi-aquatic grass-like plant which dies back every autumn and re-appears in the spring from its rhizomatous rootstock. The plant itself is instantly recognisable. Even in mid-winter, when the living parts are safely hidden beneath the mud, the fluffy seed-heads from last years flowering stems give their location away.

Several different parts of this plant are edible, at different times of year, but my favourite has got to be the tender hearts of the fresh spring shoots, which have just come into season in south-east England. The green parts of the stem are not so great to eat, rather like leeks or spring onion. Reedmace stems should be treated similarly, although instead of just chopping off the green bits and leaving the white, the outer layers of the Reedmace stem bases can be gently peeled off (use your fingers, not a knife).

Reedmace hearts, ready to be eaten raw, or steamed

The taste is mild, fresh, slightly grass-like and a little bit peppery. They are excellent raw, sliced into salads, or can be steamed and served with a little butter or white sauce.

There’s not much you’re likely to confuse Reedmace with, but it does sometimes grow with Yellow Flag Iris, which is poisonous. It also tastes vile, so there is unlikely to be a problem, but take care.

If you cannot find any Reedmace locally, and would like to try foraging some yourself, there are still a few places left on our spring foraging courses later this month.

Smooth Sowthistle

Email: geoff@geoffdann.co.uk

04/03/2019

Spring is just around the corner, and the early spring plants are ahead of their normal schedule due to the very mild second half of February. In my own immediate locality one of the best-known spring vegetables is currently super-abundant (as is often the case). Smooth Sowthistle (Sonchus oleraceus) has been highly regarded as an edible wild food since antiquity. The Latin “oleraceus” literally means “having the qualities of a pot-herb”. Viewers of the BBC’s new adaptation of Watership Down, screened in two parts at Christmas, may recall the numerous mentions of this plant as being reserved for the most high-ranking rabbits in the burrow, and an older common name is “Hare’s Thistle”, in reference to its supposed beneficial effects on hares and rabbits.

There are three common species of sowthistle in the UK, and while the other two (Perennial and Prickly Sowthistle (S. asper and arvensis) are also edible, they are more spiny. Smooth sowthistle is the best for eating, having more tender and slightly tastier leaves. There are plenty of things you might confuse it with, nearly all of them other members of the Daisy Family (Asteraceae), but none of them are dangerously poisonous so it is a relatively safe option for foragers.

Smooth or Common Sowthistle (Sonchus oleraceus)

The biggest problem, at least in urban areas, is dog contamination. They tend to grow exactly at the level and in the sort of places where dogs like to go, which is rather off-putting. Fortunately, they are also so prolific that you can usually find somewhere less likely to be contaminated – the ones we had for dinner this evening (pictured right) were growing outside the front of my next-door neighbour’s house, in a raised area out of the reach of passing dogs.

What to do with them? The very young leaves go well as a salad leaf, slightly bitter but less so than either Rocket or its relative Raddichio. Older leaves are more bitter, but this bitterness is significantly reduced by boiling for a couple of minutes, after which they can be served like Spinach. The midrib of the leaves retains it crunch even after brief boiling, and they make an excellent component of a stir-fry. They are also nutritious, containing significant quantities of iron, calcium and vitamins A, B and C.

If you’re interested in learning more about foraging for spring plants, there are still some places free on our new courses at Brede in Sussex. All the details can be found here.