Dark Penny Bun Bonanza!

Email: geoff@geoffdann.co.uk


An update is required! Having blogged a couple of days ago about finding lots of large boletes but no Dark Penny Buns (Boletus aereus), today I came across a bonanza of them. I also saw quite a lot of the other things I described as “missing” in that post – plenty of Brittlegills and Milkcaps, Leccinums and Suillus coming through, as well as a lot of poisonous Livid Pinkgills (Entoloma sinuatum). And gazillions of Blushers.

I had originally tried a spot I’ve seen them before. I found one specimen, rolling around loose having been knocked over by an animal. So I decided to check somewhere else that I’ve previously seen Chestnut Boletes. There were none (but quite a lot of other stuff). Then I headed off home via a different route and was really excited to find about 15 Dark Penny Buns – more than I’d ever found in one place before, and in good enough condition to get a much better ID photo than my existing best one. I was very happy with my afternoon’s work.

Pretty good ID shot

Then about 50 metres away I came across the motherlode. Well over 200 of them growing under a row of oaks I have passed countless times before, but never seen any of this species. I do sometimes criticise people for irresponsible “over-picking”, but this was one of those situations where this was almost impossible. Firstly, there was no shortage of large, old specimens which weren’t worth picking, because they were too soft and grub-infested.

Not worth taking these. Much better left to spread their spores around.

So I was only interested in the youngsters, and most of these were at the early stages of infection with “Bolete Eater” mould, which means that within a day or two they were destined to become both inedible and infertile.

Dark Penny Buns being attacked by “Bolete Eater” mould, but still edible at this point

And since nobody else forages in this location (almost nobody else even goes there – it is rather inaccessible, the footpath into it is poorly marked and doesn’t go anywhere sensible. I’ve never even seen a dog-walker there, just the occasional horse rider) I figured I’d take as many as I could carry!

Dark Penny Bun Bonanza

This is the biggest mass-fruiting of one of the big edible prized boletes I have ever seen in one place at one time.

It’s looking good. Let’s hope it stays this way, and 2018 could be a classic mushroom year.

Edit: I found another huge flush a few days later, video here.

Large boletes are out in force, it’s mushroom time!

Email: geoff@geoffdann.co.uk


I love this time of year. The oppressive hot weather has gone, and nature is at its most abundant for a forager. Best of all, it has been 9 months since mushroom season ended and I don’t have many foraging clients, so I actually get to remember what my hobby was like before it became my job. And because every year is different, it’s never boring.

The opening of mushroom season 2018 is quite selective – a lot of things aren’t fruiting at all – but the things that are fruiting are doing so very abundantly. Most predominant of all are the large boletes. This morning I found the biggest flush of Oak Boletes (Butyriboletus appendiculatus) I have seen in many years, and finally got a photo that eluded me while collecting photos for my book (the photo of this species in the book is one of the few that aren’t my own). This is an absolutely first class edible – my wife Cathy ranked it higher than a Penny Bun (Boletus edulis), and I’m tempted to agree with her. Our six month old daughter Dorothy was also impressed. They are sweet, and almost crunchy even when cooked. Do be careful though – there were some very similar-looking mushrooms under the next tree, no more than ten metres away, but these were the poisonous and bitter Rooting Bolete (Caloboletus radicans).  Apart from the taste, the most obvious differences are slight differences in the colour scheme, and the patterning on the stem (compare photos).

Oak Bolete

Rooting Bolete

I actually spotted these Oak Boletes yesterday and went back to photograph them this morning, and their abundance prompted me to spend the afternoon seeing what else I could find.  The result was a very wide selection of large boletes, including Summer Boletes (B. reticulatus), Penny Buns, Lurid Boletes (Suillelus luridus), Scarletina Boletes (Neoboletus luridiformis) a couple of Bay Boletes (Imleria badia), as well as handful of smaller species. Dark Penny Buns (B. aereus) are also fruiting in south-east England, but I didn’t see any today. These species typically do well after a long, hot summer, so this is not unexpected.

Clockwise from top left: Lurid Bolete, Summer Bolete, Penny Bun, Scarletina Bolete, Bay Bolete, Oak Bolete

Another edible species that is really going for it is The Blusher (Amanita rubescens), which is having its best year in a long time.  There’s a decent amount of various members of the Agaricaceae about (Agaricus species, Parasols and Shaggy Parasols, Giant Puffballs), and I found a big fruiting of one of my absolute favourites – Poplar Fieldcap (Cyclocybe cylindracea).


Some things are missing though, including some boletes: I haven’t seen a single Leccinum, nor a Suillus. There are a few brittlegills (Russula) about, but nothing like what you’d expect in a good year for this group. I haven’t seen any chanterelles or any of their relatives either, and I’m expecting a quiet year for these after they fruited so prolifically last year. No sign of the rest of the Amanitas either, apart from a couple of False Blushers (Amanita spissa) – no Deathcaps (A. phalloides).

Poplar Fieldcap

All things considered, it’s looking pretty good for this year’s mushroom season. I expect the things that are missing will start turning up in the next two or three weeks.

Finally, it is also looking like an exceptional year for sloes.


Good luck and stay safe!


Dorothy Dann samples an Oak Bolete

New foraging camp at Mill Wood up and running. Extra date added.

Email: geoff@geoffdann.co.uk


Basecamp at Mill Wood, brand new kettle on the fire

We’ve spent the last couple of days setting up the basecamp for some foraging events in a new location, the first time we’ve run anything like this. If today was anything to go by, these are going to be very interesting sessions. This secluded, and rather overgrown, private woodland in East Sussex has a rather strange history, having been turned from ancient woodland into a pig farm which apparently wasn’t a success, before being left for nature to reclaim it for a few years. It was purchased by an old friend of mine last autumn, and the first thing he told me about it was that it looked really good for fungi. And it seems he was right.

Basecamp at Mill Wood, Chicken of the Woods in the foreground

Yesterday, after 3 hours of messing around with different trees and ropes, we finally managed to get an 8x6m tarpaulin set up to our satisfaction, and today we set up a smaller tarp to protect the fire in wet weather, and had a first go at using our new cooking equipment. I also spent some time looking around the woodland for fungi, and ended up finding so much within 200 metres of the base camp that I had no need (or time) to foray further afield. The area I was looking in is mainly oak, birch and hazel, but there’s plenty of sweet chestnut and other trees which probably had an even greater selection of fungi. There were several edible species within a few metres of the tarp, including a Penny Bun (Boletus edulis) which one us unfortunately trod on, two Chicken of the Woods, several edible Brittlegills and some other edible boletes. A large flush of Weeping Widow (Lacrymaria lacrymabunda) wasn’t much further away.

Weeping Widow (Lacrymaria lacrymabunda)

I also came across a real oddity. I was looking around in the immediate area of the base for logs suitable to be used as seating. There are a lot of logs round there that look like stumps, because they’ve been there for so long, so anything that looks like an attached stump was worth wobbling, to see if it was loose. One of these I turned over, and to my great surprise there were some fungi fruiting underneath it. Without my reading glasses to hand, it was not at all obvious what they were, especially as this is a very strange habitat for any fungi to be fruiting in. I guessed they might be some sort of earthstar, took a photo, and continued searching for seating.

Something mysterious no longer lurking under a log.

Only when I got home and looked at the hi-res photos did it become clear what they are. These are very young Blushers (Amanita rubescens), just emerging from their universal veil. You can tell this by the pink discolouration, and the veil remnants on their emerging caps. But this is still a mystery, because it is not at all clear why they’d be fruiting under a log that looked like it had been there for several years. Fungi normally fruit where the mycelium detects lights (so if you have an infected damp beam in your loft, the fungi will grow down into your bedroom rather than up into the dark loft). So why would an Amanita mycelium try to fruit under a log? If the mycelium was only under the log, and not the surrounding area, how did it get there?

Soft Puffballs (Lycoperdon molle), looking very much like Meadow Puffballs (L. pratense), but this is the wrong habitat for that species.

Amanita at this stage have been confused for puffballs in the past, and in some cases this has led to serious poisonings when the Amanita in question was a Deathcap. It is easy to see how somebody might have made such a mistake. There were some puffballs around today too,  growing on a thin layer of soil that had accumulated on what looked like hardboard covering some sort of pit. These are Soft Puffball (Lycoperdon molle).

The Blusher (Amanita rubescens)

Anyway, I am now very much looking forwards to these sessions, and I have now added a new one to the original two (see below for details). They will be approximately 4 hours long, starting at 10.30. We’ll start by exploring the area nearest the basecamp, which I’ll have scouted out beforehand. We’ll then take our finds back to the base to have a good look at them and make sure everybody knows how they were identified, and then have a wild-mushroom-based lunch. After that we will head out for a second forage, this time going further afield into areas I will have not scouted beforehand, so I won’t know what we’re going to find, or where. Finally we will return to the base, go through what we found, and we will cook up all the finds on the campfire.

These sessions are an introductory price of £45 this year (they will be £65 next year). At the time of writing, there’s only one place left on Saturday September 22nd, and 5 places on Sunday October 21st. I have now added a midweek date on Thursday October 4th.

Fungi season 2018 is now up and running and it is looking good. Have fun and stay safe!


Parasol (Macrolepiota procera)

Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus), one of many.

Drought over, and the late summer fungi are out

Email: geoff@geoffdann.co.uk


Just a quick update on the weather and fungi conditions.

The last couple of days have seen another generous helping of rain in south-east England, and the first clear evidence that the fungi are back. And in fact the omens are positive, and right now I’d tentatively guess we’re in for a good autumn as far as fungi are concerned. This afternoon I visited a location I’ll be running some new events at this autumn. Details are available via the link at the top of this page, the area is called “Mill Wood”, and it is the site of a woodland pig farm that has been reclaimed by nature for the last four years, plus some adjacent land. We found plenty of Brittlegills (mainly Charcoal Burners), a Blusher, some boletes, a couple of very young Chicken of the Woods, a large flush of Common Puffballs just coming through and a lot of White-laced Shanks (all edible). There were also a few other, inedible bits a pieces. That’s not bad at all for August 13th after an extended spell of extremely hot and dry weather.

Charcoal Burner (Russula cyanoxantha)

Fungi, Foraging and Drought

Email: geoff@geoffdann.co.uk


Well, the UK is now officially experiencing the longest period of prolonged hot, dry weather since 1976. The heatwave that year is etched onto my memory – I was just about to turn eight years old, and had never seen anything like it before. I remember my mother syphoning used bathwater out of the bathroom window with a hosepipe in order to keep the vegetables watered. But mostly I just remember the sun didn’t stop shining all summer long. In fact, the hottest and driest part of that year was precisely the period that’s just finished this time around (end of June and beginning of July), but it continued on into August, with some parts of the south seeing no rainfall at all for 45 days. Then came the ladybird plague. People who weren’t there don’t believe the stories, but it was truly like something out of the Old Testament. I remember walking along Brighton seafront, with ladybirds crunching under each step. The groynes were painted red with ladybirds. This plague was the result of conditions in the previous 18 months being perfect for the reproduction of the ladybirds’ favourite food: aphids. But the heatwave killed off the vegetation the aphids were eating, leaving the booming population of ladybirds with nothing to eat. This caused them to swarm in search of food, until they were trapped against the south and east coasts. Happy memories…

The sun beating down on the wave-cut sandstone platform below Beachy Head in Sussex. At least the edible seaweeds are thriving.

But what does this year’s ongoing drought mean for fungi, and foraging in general? Bad news, mainly. There’s very little in the way of plants worth foraging, since most of them have stopped growing. The best foraging to be had is coastal, since the seaweeds are in their prime. Although even this was looking touch-and-go until quite recently, at least on the south coast, because of the worst algal bloom in living memory. This algae had turned the water a foul browny-green, and had a negative impact on much of the seaweed growth. In the last few weeks this has begun to clear up though, and the water quality and seaweed are recovering.

In terms of fungi, there’s almost nothing fruiting at the moment. Fungal mycelia can lie dormant and survive extended periods of drought, but they cannot produce fruit bodies. This is because the fruit bodies are composed primarily of water, and the mycelium has no reason (or capability) of storing water. That mycelium can build up stores of the other things it needs to produce fruit bodies, but it requires at least some rainfall to penetrate the ground before it can fruit. There are very few exceptions to this, but a handful of northern European species are drought-tolerant specialists, and if you are going to find any mushrooms at all at the moment it will probably be one of these. One of the most spectacular, and rarest, is a relative of the Deathcap called the Solitary Amanita (Amanita echinocephala). Its common name derives from the fact that it usually fruits as singletons (presumably because it usually fruits in dry weather), and its Latin name refers to the pyramidal warts (or spikes) on its cap. As far as edibility goes, it falls into the category of probably not poisonous but please don’t pick it because it is far too rare.

Solitary Amanita (Amanita echinocephala). I’ve only ever found this species three times, and only once had a camera with me. (Sorry for the blurriness of the photo, which dates back to before the time I was collecting fungi photos professionally – it was just snapped on a poor-quality phone camera, because I didn’t know what it was at the time. And yes, the ground is damp, but it was taken in mid-August after an extended period of dry weather. The day it was taken was the first time it had rained in weeks.)

The only fungi I have actually seen growing in the last couple of weeks were bracket fungi related to Artist’s Fungus (which you can draw on) and Reishi/Lacquered Bracket (which is very important medicinally). These are Ganoderma resinaceum, yet to be given an English common name, and they are both fruiting from very large trees (one dead, one alive).

Ganoderma resinaceum

How does this hot weather bode for the autumn fungi season? Well, that depends on whether it keeps going, or whether the pattern breaks and we get deluged with rain. Hot weather during the summer is actually good for some fungi, especially the mycorrhizal species that live symbiotically with trees. The trees like the sunshine, and because they have such deep roots they can do well even when it doesn’t rain for a very long time. This means that when the autumn comes, they are loaded with plenty of carbohydrates which they can give to the fungi. Hot weather is also bad news for the slug population, which in turn is good news for any soft fungi that do eventually fruit. There’s also a backlog of things which haven’t been able to fruit, which may all fruit at the same time when it rains. So there’s three different reasons to be hopeful of a bumper crop of fungi, eventually.

Of course, this only works if the rains come. If the dry weather continues into September and October, fungi season will be delayed. Very occasionally (last time it happened was 2003, if I recall correctly), a drought in the first half of the autumn is then followed by an early cold snap, and when this happens the fungi season can be wiped out entirely. More frequently we get what happened in 2011 (IIRC), when finally something like normal autumn weather arrived at the start of November, which led to a massive glut of all sorts of things, as the species that normally fruit in September and October went crazy at the same time as the species that were fruiting in their usual late-Autumn spot.

For me, the hot weather can’t end to soon. I’m one of those who can’t sleep when it is like this, and it worries me to see the countryside so thoroughly parched. If anyone knows a good rain dance, now is the time.

Chicken of the Woods is fruiting abundantly now

Email: geoff@geoffdann.co.uk


Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus), near Hastings, May 2018

Judging by the large number of photos currently being posted from every corner of the country, 2018 is shaping up to be a classic year for Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus). If you’ve never found it and always wanted to try it, right now is the time to go looking. Chicken of the Woods is an unmistakable bright orange-yellow bracket fungus with a strong and pleasant smell of something like mushroomy-chicken. The only thing people easily confuse it with is Giant Polypore (Meripilus giganteus), which is greyer, larger, lacks the chicken smell and bruises black (and it’s not poisonous). COTW can be found growing on a variety of dead and living trees, especially oak, cherry, chestnut and yew. Some people claim it is poisonous when growing on yew, but there’s no actual evidence to support this theory and I have eaten it from yew on

Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus), near Hastings, May 2018

numerous occasions. May is typically when it starts fruiting, although it sometimes fruits again

in the early autumn. It is best eaten after its initial yellow “blob stage”, as soon as it has developed into brackets, but before if starts to get tough (at which point it becomes sour, and then bitter).

There’s many ways you can cook it, but my favourite is a cream and herb sauce.

Chicken of the Woods in cream and herb sauce, garnished with Adria Bellflowers

Ingredients (quantities to taste):

Fresh Chicken of the Woods
Fresh thyme (chopped)
Fresh chives (chopped)
Double cream
A little parmesan, grated
Salt and Pepper


Slice the Chicken of the Woods thickly.
Fry gently for 6 or 7 minutes in a 50/50 mixture of olive oil and butter. Turn regularly, do not burn.
Add the herbs and fry for another 30 seconds.
Add the cream and parmesan and continue cooking gently for another 3 minutes.
Season to perfection, and serve immediately.


Email: geoff@geoffdann.co.uk


One might reasonably guess from the way it emerges from beneath the black plastic wrapping of a hay bale, like a slow-motion version of one of Ridley Scott’s aliens, that one is dealing with something a little unusual. Splitgill (Schizophyllum commune) certainly isn’t your average edible wild fungus (and in fact if you refer to the majority of European sources of information about this species, you’d also be forgiven for concluding that it isn’t edible at all, but you’d be wrong.)

So what’s so unusual about it?

Firstly, it has over 28,000 sexes. If you want the grubby technical details of exactly what this means then see this article, but a simplified version would be to say instead of having either an XX (female) or XY (male) chromosomal pair that determines human sexes, Splitgill has over 300 genetic variations for the the first X and over 90 for the second X/Y. And any individual can mate with any other individual that doesn’t share one of those variations. The purpose of this apparently-bizarre scheme is to make sure that an particular individual can’t mate with its closest relatives – something that would normally happen quite a lot of the time, given the amount of spores produced by the fruit bodies of any one mycelium.

Secondly, it is one of the very few fungi (or species of any branch of life) which has a truly global distribution – or as near as makes no difference. It occurs everywhere there is a suitable substrate for it to grow on (wood, where humans don’t provide its favourite “artificial” habitat), which is everywhere from the tropics to the Arctic.

Thirdly, it is just about the only fungus that is both eaten by humans and also causes diseases in humans. It is wise not to sniff too many of the spores in, or risk getting one of a various infections, some much rarer and nastier than others. They include “chronic or allergic sinusitis, pulmonary disease, ulcerative lesions of the palate, atypical meningitis, cerebral abscess, and possible onychomycosis” (see https://www.hindawi.com/journals/criid/2011/821259/).

Closeup of the “gills”, clearly showing the “splits” after which the fungus is named

Fourthly, it has unusual gills, from which both its Latin and common names are derived. They are literally split. Well, technically it doesn’t have gills at all, but “undulations” or “flappy wrinkles” on the undersurface, which are distinctly split, although this only becomes visible as the fruit body dries out. This is some sort of protective mechanism, which helps the fungus survive varying amounts of heat and humidity in the diverse climatic conditions where it exists.

Fifthly, while it is actually quite rare in its “natural” habitat of woodland, it is locally very abundant in a completely different habitat: plastic-wrapped bales of hay, especially ones that have been left in a field for quite a long time. The “artificial” habitat doesn’t seem to resemble the natural one much, but once it becomes established it quite clearly likes its human-provided home.

Sixthly, it will eat plastic waste and turn it into human food, in a device called a “fungi mutarium” (see https://www.sciencealert.com/this-device-turns-plastic-waste-into-safe-edible-mushrooms).

Splitgill fried in 50/50 butter and olive oil, with chives and flaked sea salt

And finally, as mentioned at the start, its reputation as an edible species varies wildly from one part of the world to another. This species is a popular edible in several tropical regions, notably India and Mexico, where it is both collected from the wild and widely cultivated. The rubbery texture of these fungi protect them from decay in the heat and humidity of those places. The same rubbery texture leads people from other parts of the world to assume they aren’t edible. However, European Splitgills are just as edible as their tropical counterparts – it’s just a matter of taste. Personally I rather like them. I briefly fry them in butter, with a generous helping of salt, and the result is not unlike crispy bits of bacon. Maybe a little more rubbery than meaty, and more umami, but if you try it you might be pleasantly surprised. I’d rank it as good, not just merely “edible.” A bit fiddly to prepare (you need to trim each “shelf” to get rid of the toughest, woody bit, nearest to centre, but certainly worth bothering with.

Identification is easy because the “gills” are so distinctive, and so is the habitat you are most likely to find them bursting out of (old hay bales wrapped in black plastic). Typically you will find them in summer and autumn, but those shown here were picked yesterday (April 27th). They are easily spotted if you do happen to cross paths with them, because the fruit bodies appear on a black background, so you can see them at a range of a couple of hundred metres.

Good luck and stay safe!

Black Morels and Hop Shoots: spring is finally here!

Email: geoff@geoffdann.co.uk


Well, that was the winter that seemed like it would never end, but the sun is currently beating down on the English south coast, and it has been a good few days for me, foragingwise. A couple of days ago I broke my morel hoodoo. Well, strictly speaking it wasn’t me who broke it… People often ask me if all of the photos in my book are mine, and my answer is that over 95% of them are. But almost without exception, the 5% that aren’t mine are of species I stood little or no chance of finding in England anyway. The biggest exception were the spring-fruiting morels, for which I have been searching in vain for over thirty years. The two famous edible European morels (Morchella esculenta and elata, Common and Black) aren’t that rare. Other people seem to find them. But spring after spring I’ve been out looking for them, and wherever they were fruiting was somewhere I wasn’t.

Black Morel (Morchella elata), 17/04/2018

Then on Monday evening, a friend of mine tipped me off that he’d spotted some morels growing in a flowerbed somewhere on the campus of Sussex University, and I agreed to meet him there the following afternoon. He had told me exactly where to look. I went to the location, looked as hard as I could, and could see no morels. He was late. Eventually I decided that the Mushroom Gods had decreed that I would never see a morel growing wild, and began trudging home empty-handed. Five minutes later my phone rang and it was Tim, asking me where I was. I told him that the morels had gone, and he replied that that was very strange, because he was looking at them right now. So I went back, and there they were, about ten Black Morels growing exactly where I’d looked 20 minutes before. I have to wonder how many times I have looked right at them and my visual system has “edited them out”. Anyway, having now actually seen them growing wild, I am hoping the spell is broken and that I will find many more. Including some Common Morels, which are more highly ranked than these black ones, and which are now the only important British edible wild fungus I am yet to encounter.

The second wild food that’s been crossed off my list in recent days is Hop shoots. I have seen

Hop (Humulus lupus) shoots, 19/04/2018

plenty of Hops before – but I’ve never found them anywhere close to where I live, and it has always been in the summer or autumn when the plants have their characteristic flowers (famous for their use in beer making), by which time the shoots are shooting no longer. Spotting them at this time of year if you do

King Prawn, Oarweed and Three-cornered Leek salad, with Pepper Dulse

Email: geoff@geoffdann.co.uk

The first low spring tide of 2018 which was low enough, during daylight and reasonable weather, for foraging near the lowest tide line.


The weather has finally relented and allowed, for the first time this year, access to the low tide line in Sussex, during a reasonably-large spring tide, daylight and half-decent weather. A lot of the best edible seaweeds haven’t got properly  going yet (give them a week or two of sunshine and they’ll be off), but my local supply of Pepper Dulse was uber-abundant and perfect for picking, and the Oarweed (a type of Kelp) is just about big enough to justify taking some. I’ve been experimenting with variations of this recipe for a few years now, and today I decided to add some Three-Cornered Leek (which is just starting to flower in Sussex), with king prawns as the main ingredient and Pepper Dulse as a garnish. It’s loosely based on something Thai or Japanese.

Oarweed (photo taken in June)

(Serves 4)


150g fresh (or reconstituted) Oarweed or Cuvie (Tangle)
100g high-quality tomato, roughly chopped
100g cucumber, roughly chopped
50g three-cornered leek leaves, roughly chopped
30g coriander leaves (no large stalks), finely chopped
One large red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
20 king prawns

Pepper Dulse (photo taken today (03/04/2018))


A few sprigs of fresh Pepper Dulse
A few Three-Cornered Leek flowers (unopened buds are also good)
A sprinkling of sesame seeds (black is more authentic, but I didn’t have any to hand so I used normal ones)


Juice of one lime (5 tbsp)
5 tbsp fish sauce
1 tsp muscovado sugar

King Prawn, Oarweed and Three-Cornered Leek salad, with Pepper Dulse


1. Bring a pan of water to the boil and simmer the Kelp for 5-6 minutes, then douse in cold water and drain.
2. Put the kelp, tomato, cucumber, coriander, three-cornered leek leaves and chilli in to a bowl and mix well.
3. Prepare the dressing (add all the ingredients to a small bowl and mix).
4. Plate up the salad mix, with the prawns in the middle, then add 2 tbsps of dressing to each plate and garnish with Three-cornered Leek flowers and sesame seeds on top and Pepper Dulse at the side.

If you’d like to come and forage for these seaweeds yourself, and try a variation on this recipe, please see my coastal foraging events page.

No, the name “Jew’s Ear” is not anti-semitic

Email: geoff@geoffdann.co.uk


Jew’s Ear (Auricularia auricula-judae) fruiting from an old Elder tree, in a cemetery, in winter.

There’s a lot of Jew’s Ears (Auricularia auricula-judae) around at the moment – it is one of the few edible wild fungi that can be found right through the year, and it is typically abundant throughout the winter. And that means there’s a lot of something else around at the moment: arguments on the internet about the acceptability of its name, some of which escalate into extremely bad-tempered personalised battles. The truth, as usual, tends to get lost in the crossfire.

This battle, in its modern British form, originates with a decision first by Plant Life International in 2003, and then by the British Mycological Society (the “BMS”) in 2005, to give it a new official name of “Jelly Ear”. In recent years the BMS has embarked on a project to designate official English common names for fungi, with the stated goals of making fungi more accessible (and fun) to non-scientists (by reducing the need to use cumbersome Latin names) as well as avoiding confusion where a species has more than one common name, or a common name refers to more than one species. All well and good, but this example doesn’t fit into either of those categories: “Jew’s Ear” (or names it is derived from) has long been the recognised common name for this species (it is the oldest English common name for any fungus), and it only refers to this species. This is the sole case where a decision was made to replace an established common name with a newly invented one, and the motivation was political. While the BMS has no legitimate authority to impose political judgements on the English-speaking world, it nevertheless had to make a decision as to what the “official” common name of this species was to be, and since accusations of anti-semitism were already rife on the other side of the Atlantic, the BMS played it safe and adopted a new name. I think this was the wrong call, and this post explains why.

Hottentot Fig (Carpobrotus edulis).

Why is this name considered, by some, to be “anti-semitic”? Usually no justification is given – people condemning the name seem to just expect everybody else to assume it is self-evidently anti-semitic. But plenty of species have similar common names that aren’t considered derogatory. Are we going to reject the names “Lady’s Slipper” (Cypripedium reginae) or “Lady’s Smock” (Cardamine pratensis) for being sexist? Are “Monk’s Rhubarb” (Rumex spp.) or Star-of-Bethlehem (Ornithogalum angustifolium) anti-Christian? What about Hottentot Fig (Carpobrotus edulis)? This is an edible plant native to south Africa, but well established in Europe. “Hottentot” is an old Dutch name for a southern African tribal people now more correctly known as “Khoekhoe”, and the etymology suggests “stutterer”, or just an approximation of what Khoekhoe language sounds like to dismissive European ears. As such, it is polite today to refer to these people by the name they use for themselves and “Hottentot” is considered mildly derogatory, but I’m yet to hear anybody suggest we rename Carpobrotus edulis something boring and inoffensive like “Succulent-leaved Fig”. But “Jew’s Ear” doesn’t even reach this level of offensiveness – what is actually offensive or discriminatory about “Jew’s Ear”?

One theory that’s been postulated during these online battles is that the Nazis issued anti-semitic propaganda posters depicting Jews as “ugly” – with over-sized ears and noses. This may well be true, but since the name of the fungus predates the Third Reich by several centuries, the claim of a causal connection with Nazi propaganda doesn’t make sense. The accusation of anti-semitism also predates the Nazis, the first example anyone can find coming from American mycologist Curtis Gates Lloyd (1859-1926). But Lloyd’s main claim to fame was his eccentric opinions on fungal naming conventions (in both Latin and English), and I can find no account of his justification for rejecting this one – just another claim that it is a self-evident “slander on the Jews”. He also disliked the Latin version (which means exactly the same thing) for being too long and including a convention-busting hyphen.

And it is in America that the modern rejection of the name on spurious grounds began. Here, for example, is an article that appeared in a 2005 edition of the Long Island Mycological Club’s newsletter. It contains several pages of hysterical wailing about the anti-semitic nature of the name “Jew’s Ear”, but is notably lacking in supporting evidence. First it claims that “Nazi hate literature” published in 1938 made some connection between this fungus and anti-semitism, but beyond the wild, vague accusations, there is neither any detail nor any link or reference to the material in question. And anyway, since the article itself acknowledges that the name predates the Nazis by several centuries, why does anything they wrote about it matter? The author then goes on to claim that “the most likely origin of the name is the hysterical anti-semitism that burgeoned in the middle-ages…” No actual reason is given for why it is “most likely”. The most interesting thing about this article is the way it portrays America, with its powerful Jewish lobby, as blazing the way forwards on this matter (even changing the Latin name to Auricularia auricula) while the UK and the rest of the “old world” are still backwardly wallowing in the middle ages. Thus it seems the BMS decision was influenced by a culture of anti-anti-semitic witch-hunting in the United States.

Judas Iscariot hanging from a tree (which looks a bit large and robust to be Elder…)

The origin of this name is not a mystery, and does not appear to have much to do with anti-semitism or Judaism. The name was originally “Judas’s Ear”. The Latin specific epithet “auricula-judae” means “Judas’s Ear”. This name was derived from a Christian myth that Judas Iscariot hung himself from an Elder tree, and because Jew’s Ears particularly like to grow on Elder, it was said that Judas’s spirit passed into the tree, and thus these fungi are somehow his ears.

From the American article: “Why, then, is this fungus also known as “Jew’s Ear”? How and when did “Judas’s Ear” become “Jew’s Ear”? Or did these variant names exist together all along simply because Judas was associated with the Jews?”

The answer is simple: it is a contraction. – “Judas’s Ear” became “Judas Ear” or “Jude’s Ear”, which was eventually shortened to “Jew’s Ear”. No anti-semitism – just the English language evolving to leave a consonant out here or there. The fact that the author of the article is absolutely convinced that this must have been the deliberate work of people who hated Jews is of no relevance.

The article continues: “We will probably never know the precise answers to these questions…” and “. I believe there was no mistranslation…” Lots of “probably”, “we don’t know” and “I believe.” But no evidence.

The Elder mythology is itself something of a curiosity. An older traditional claim  is that Judas hung himself on a Mediterranean Redbud tree (Cercis silquastrum). And anyone familiar with Elder must surely agree that it is a strange choice of tree to hang yourself from: it’s just not robust enough, and you’d expect the branches to break. Although Elder does occur in the Levant, there is no historical record of an association with Christianity until that religion started to exert its authority in Europe, and this is where we need to look to discover the true origin of these myths.

Two Christian myths appeared in medieval times regarding Elder. One was that Elder wood was used to make the cross Jesus was crucified on (again, a very strange choice from a practical point of view), and the other was this story about Judas hanging himself. Both myths associate Elder with bad things. But there was already a rich Pagan mythology surrounding Elder in which it was associated with feminine spirituality (see here and here). All across northern Europe, Elder was associated with Goddesses or “the Elder Mother”. The spirits of dead witches were said to inhabit Elder, and for these reasons the wood should only be burned with great caution and reverence. If you delve into the mythology and history of this era, the true origins of the Christian Elder mythology become clear: this was an attempt by the Catholic Church to displace Pagan beliefs that were profoundly incompatible with Christian theology with Christian mythology aimed at demonising the revered Elder tree and exorcising its feminine spirituality. And it largely worked.

So the truth is that there is no reason to believe that name “Jew’s Ear” is even remotely anti-semitic. If anything, it is anti-pagan. And in fact you’ll find that most Jews themselves don’t find the name offensive. Like so much political correctness, more people seem to be vicariously offended on behalf of other people, than people being offended themselves.

I am going to make a political statement myself: political correctness has become the scourge of modern western culture and is an obstacle to free thinking, free speech and the pursuit of truth. I am very much hoping that the election to the highest political office in the world of a person who pays no heed whatsoever to political correctness will be seen as a turning point. Perhaps, at long last, we have passed “Peak Political Correctness”. Another sign of this cultural change is the meteoric rise to fame of Canadian academic Jordan Peterson, whose interviews and youtube videos are inspiring a whole generation of younger people to abandon political correctness wholesale. The trigger for that rise to fame, along with the publication of his second book, was to point blank refuse to accept that the Canadian government had any right to compel him to use gender-neutral pronouns to when referring to transgender people: he viewed it as an assault on his freedom of expression, just as is the attempt to compel people to abandon the traditional name of A. auricula-judae.

Apart from anything else, the attempt to change the name of this fungus has failed. It was a case, perhaps, of it being better to let sleeping dogs lie. By attempting to impose a political directive, via language policing, the people who made this decision, rather than putting this issue to bed, have ensured that every time anybody uses either common name, this whole argument will re-ignite. And I am willing to bet that the traditional name will survive into the 22nd century and beyond, and the name “Jelly Ear” will forever be associated with a period in the late 20th and early 21st centuries when political correctness was allowed to steamroller the truth.