Tag Archives: foraging

A Good Year for the Deathcaps

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
Phone: 07964 569715


Mushroom season 2013 is now well underway, not that you’d think so if you read what is being posted on many internet forums at the moment. The pundits who predicted a “penny bun storm” turned out to be woefully wrong (as usual – the pundits are always wrong – predicting what the mushrooms are going to do is a mug’s game). There are a few penny buns (Boletus edulis, cep, porcino) about, and considerably more of their “poor relation” the bay bolete (Boletus badius). The milkcaps (genus Lactarius) are doing well, as are the relatives of the shop/field mushrooms (genus Agaricus), and in the last few days parasol mushrooms (Macrolepiota procera) have started to appear in force. Everything else is currently doing badly, and the whole show is very, very patchy. There are still long stretches with not very much at all, and then you find a hotspot with loads going on.

Deathcap (Amanita phalloides)

Deathcap (Amanita phalloides)

If the edibles are having an unspectacular year (so far – everything might change next week), the same cannot be said of the deadlies. At least in my neck of the woods, September 2013 has turned out to be a bumper year for the deathcap (Amanita phalloides). It’s close relative, the pure white, equally-lethal destroying angel (Amanita virosa) is also having a good year, although it is never as common as its grey-green cousin.

These mushrooms live up to their reputations. They are the most toxic fungi by a clear margin, and rank among the deadliest organisms on the planet. If you eat just one of them then you will probably die, and the next most likely outcome is that you’ll need a kidney transplant. The reason for this high level of toxicity is that the poisons contained in these fungi directly attack the organs responsible for removing unwanted chemicals from the body: the kidneys and liver. Even worse, instead of being removed from the bloodstream when they pass through mammalian kidneys, these toxins are re-absorbed, and so go round and round the system causing more damage each time. There is no antidote.

You’ll often find nibbled specimens, and somewhat surprisingly it is not just invertebrates that like them. Both deer and rabbits can eat them with impunity, because their digestive systems have enzymes which break down the amatoxins before they enter the animals’ bloodstream.

Deathcaps grow symbiotically with deciduous trees, usually oaks. Destroying angels are usually found with beech. Both are easily recognised by the presence of a bag around the base of the stem (a volva) and pure white gills that stay white.

Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa)

Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa)

I must admit to having a morbid fascination with these two mushrooms. There is something awesome about their lethality. I’m always pleased to find them, but I can’t say I particularly enjoy handling them. Touching them is not actually dangerous – you’d have to actually swallow part of the cap to get into trouble with them. They are perhaps the archetypal example of something which disproves the rule “what you don’t know won’t hurt you.” In this case, it is only if you don’t know what they are that they can hurt you. If you know them, and respect them, then they can’t harm you.


No Girolles Please, We’re British

Email: geoffdann@hotmail.com
Phone: 07964 569715


“By the way, if anyone here is in marketing or advertising…kill yourself. Thank you. Just planting seeds, planting seeds is all I’m doing. No joke here, really. Seriously, kill yourself, you have no rationalisation for what you do, you are Satan’s little helpers. Kill yourself, kill yourself, kill yourself now. Now, back to the show. Seriously, I know the marketing people: ‘There’s gonna be a joke comin’ up.’ There’s no f*****’ joke. Suck a tail pipe, hang yourself…borrow a pistol from an NRA buddy, do something…rid the world of your evil f*****’ presence.”

(American comic/philosopher Bill Hicks)

At the risk of being accused of inverted snobbery…

What would you think if you read a recipe supposedly written in English, and it asked for 200 grams of oignon? What if you were in a British restaurant and saw “boeuf” of the menu? Answer: if you’ve got any sense, you’d know that the person who had written it was a pretentious twit. This is Britain, and the appropriate words to use are “onion” and “beef”. Writing “oignon” or “boeuf” is every bit as ludicrous as starting the ingredients/contents list of a food or toiletry product with “aqua”, as if anybody was actually dumb enough to know that this isn’t plain old water, or was convinced to buy something they wouldn’t otherwise have bought because “aqua” sounds cooler, or higher class.

This sort of pretentious twittery infests the food industry, and occasionally it also misleads people so they aren’t capable of understanding the recipe or menu item, and at this point it becomes an abuse of language. It also makes the already-difficult job of learning to identify wild mushrooms even harder. But hey, why demystify people when you’re trying to impress them?

I’ve spent many years berating people for calling penny buns by their French (“cep”) or Italian (“porcino”) names. What is wrong with “penny bun”? Do “cepes” taste nicer? Are “porcini” higher class? Fortunately this particular example doesn’t usually lead to people getting the species wrong, because there is only one species involved. The same does not apply to the names “chanterelle” and “girolle”.

The name “girolle” is only used by pretentious chefs, the menus and recipes they are responsible for, and by members of the public who have been misled by the aforementioned pretentious chefs into believing that the fungus with the latin name Cantherellus cibarius is legitimately referred to in English as a “girolle”. The same chefs then use the common name “chanterelle” to refer to another species – Craterellus tubaeformis (previously known as Cantherelllus tubaeformis). Confused? Blame the pretentious chefs.

In France, C. tubaeformis is known as a chanterelle, and C. cibarius is known as a girolle. Fine, if you are writing in French. If you’re English, and writing in English, then it is not fine, because the result is confusion like this by Galton Blackiston, on the BBC website:

75g/2½oz porcini mushrooms, sliced

75g/2½oz girolle mushrooms, sliced

75g/2½oz chanterelle mushrooms

Because this recipe uses both species concerned, it is possible to see what has gone wrong. “Chanterelle” is hotlinked on this page to http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/chanterelle_mushrooms , which states that “chanterelles are wild mushrooms with a bright orangey colour that grow particularly well in Scotland and in Scandinavia, where they are highly prized.” Nope, that’s not what Galton meant. He meant “dingy brown mushrooms that grow particularly well in pine woodland all over north-west Europe in the late autumn and early winter”. The bright orangey ones he’s called “girolles”, and just for good measure he’s thrown in some Italian as well, because “Penny Bun” wasn’t pretentious enough. This mistake is not the fault of the HTML coder at the BBC, who has simply as assumed that Mr Blackiston is writing in English rather than French, and doesn’t happen to be a chef or an expert on mousserons. Oops! I meant mushrooms.

This is not just pointless Académie-française-style language fascism – it does not matter if French words are adopted into the English language when no English equivalent already exists. It is a real problem, assuming you actually want people to be able to understand what you’re writing. In the above case the error is only visible because both species are being used at the same time. If the recipe just says “chanterelle”, then this mis-use of language means that nobody can know which of the two species anybody is talking about, unless they clarify by using the latin name too.

So, for the record:


Chanterelles (Cantherellus cibarius)


…are chanterelles. They are not “girolles”, unless you are French, or pretentious.

And these…

Winter Chanterelle (Craterellus tubaeformis)


…are winter chanterelles (or trumpet chanterelles, or yellowlegs). They are not “chanterelles”, unless you are French, or pretentious.

Both species are fruiting in the UK right now. The chanterelles are heading towards their last flush of the season, and the winter chanterelles have just started to appear (I found some three days ago, considerably earlier than I usually do, and just in time for the masterclasses at the Brighton Food Festival).  Both are also delicious.  This is not about safety – it is about using language for what it is for (communicating, preferably clearly and accurately) instead of using it in the way marketing people use it.


Autumn arrives in Britain – It’s Mushroomtime…


As anyone in rural areas of the north will not need to be told, yesterday autumn arrived in Britain, with a splash. The temperature dropped by about ten degrees in most places, and nearly everywhere had a very welcome downpour. We’ve just had the best summer since 2006, but it does now look as if it’s over. Hopefully (from my point of view anyway) there will be no repeats of the misplaced October heatwave we were subjected to in 2011.

7th September 2013, Sussex.

7th September 2013, Sussex.

It’s also perfect timing in terms of fungi. The first big flush of autumn species had just started poking their heads above ground in the last few days, and the change in the weather means they won’t get dried out and with a bit of luck they will start fruiting in abundance. Today was my first (advertised as) peak session with a group of foraging students, and it produced my first decent basketful of English wild mushrooms of 2013 (we are about 3 or 4 weeks behind northern Scotland down here on the south coast).

We found in excess of forty species altogether, and if I include a couple I found before the session officially started, the list of edible species found today is as follows:

Parasol mushroom (Macrolepiota procera), ruby bolete (Xerocomus rubellus), larch bolete (Suillus grevellei), bay bolete (Boletus badius), the blusher (Amanita rubescens), tawny grisette (Amanita fulva), brown birch bolete (Leccinum scabrum), blackening russula (Russula nigricans), rooting shank (Oudemansiella radicata), orange oak bolete (Leccinum aurantiacum), velvet russula (Russula violiepes), the miller (Clitopilus prunulus), blushing wood mushroom (Agaricus silvaticus), honey fungus (Armillaria mellea) and chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus).

Now is the time to book if you want to go mushrooming with an expert this autumn! 🙂



Powdery Piggybacks!


Blackening russula (R. Nigricans).

Blackening russula (R. Nigricans).

There is no shortage of oddities in the world of fungi. I’m yet to find the powdercap strangler (Squamanita paradoxa), which takes over the fruiting body of another fungus (Cystoderma amianthinum) and replaces its cap with its own – resulting in the fungal equivalent of something like a dog with a cat’s head, or the horn stalkball, which only grows on old sheep/goat horns. I came across something yesterday that comes close though, and similarly demonstrates just how specialised some species of fungus are in terms of their chosen habitat. The fungus in the picture to the right is a very common mushroom called a blackening russula (R. nigricans). This species is edible, if not choice, provided you find it when it is still grey (more often you will just find its blackened remains, which persist throughout the winter). It is a bit indigestible, but pleasantly nutty and perfectly acceptable to eat after frying well in butter.

Blackening russula (R. Nigricans) with powdery piggybacks (Asterophora lycoperdoides) emerging.

However, not only humans eat these.  Most of them will be left to peacefully decay, but every now and then a set of small white blobs will emerge from the blackening cap.  These are mushrooms growing on a mushroom. This is the sole habitat of the powdery piggyback – it grows nowhere else other than the decaying fruitbodies of Russula nigricans. It is a bit unusual (for me at least) to see them this early in the season.

Powdery piggybacks (Asterophora lycoperdoides) on Russula nigricans fruit bodies in advanced state of decay.  Late August 2013.

Powdery piggybacks (Asterophora lycoperdoides) on Russula nigricans fruit bodies in advanced state of decay. Late August 2013.

As they reach maturity, it becomes obvious they are mini-mushrooms.  They are members of the family Lyophyllaceae – cousins of edible species such as the clustered domecap or fried chicken mushroom (Lyophyllum decastes) and St George’s Mushroom (Calocybe gambosa).  I have been asked if they are edible.  I guess they might well be, but they are so small and uncommon that it is hard to justify eating them, and they don’t exactly look very appealing.

They have a close relative – very similar looking, but not powdery, and adapted to precisely the same way of life.  These are called silky piggybacks (Asterophora parasitica).

Mushroom season 2013 is still ramping up nicely.  I found a perfect penny bun yesterday, some suillus boletes, a tawny grisette and loads more russulas.  Perhaps more importantly for me, as somebody who is currently hunting for photos, nearly all of what I am finding is in very good condition.  This could not be more different to last year, when everything was being massacred by slugs.




Blushers abound, but beware the lurking panther


The mushroom season sometimes starts slowly, and sometimes bursts into life in a flash. The main action can start any time between the end of August and the start of October, but 2013 is shaping up to be a good one and an early starter. I held my first public session of the year yesterday afternoon (in Kent), and the results were very promising for such an early date. It was also very wet, which isn’t so brilliant from a picking point of view, but bodes well for the immediate future: yesterday’s deluge is likely to be the starting pistol for the bulk of the autumn species.

We did not find a vast selection of different groups of fungi. Instead there was a useful selection of many different species belonging to two groups: russula and amanita. This is actually quite helpful from a learning point of view, because it allows people to familiarise themselves with a particular subset of fungi rather than being overwhelmed with all sorts of unrelated and very different types. There were large amounts of one good edible species belonging to each group.  We also found a nice selection of other edible bits and pieces, including chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus), pale oysters (Pleurotus pulmonarius) and common inkcaps (Coprinellus atramentaria). The good edible russula that turned up in quantity was the charcoal burner (Russula cyanoxantha), but since my last post was partly about an edible russula, I will dedicate this one to the other group.

The Blusher ([em]Amanita rubescens[/em])

The Blusher (Amanita rubescens)

Amanita is not a genus for foraging beginners. It contains the two deadliest species in the world (the death cap (A. phalloides) and destroying angel (A. virosa)), as well as the infamous, but beautiful and enchanting fly agaric (A. muscaria), which is both hallucinogenic and nauseating. The good edible amanita we found large numbers of yesterday is a close relative of the fly agaric. It is called “the blusher”, and it’s a substantial, common and very tasty fungus. It also contains toxins, but they are broken down by cooking. All parts of the mushroom must be heated to above 80 degrees for this to happen. I find this puts some people off, but it’s really no different to cooking chicken. The picture on the left wasn’t taken yesterday, but last week in southern Scotland on my way back down to Sussex, of blushers growing in the grounds of a service station by the M74 motorway. The name refers to the tendency of this mushroom to turn slowly pink, especially when the flesh is exposed to the air. This is one of the important distinguishing features, which is very important if you are thinking of eating it, because this species is all too easily mixed up with several other members of its genus, one of which is particularly similar and particularly nasty.


Panthercap (Amanita pantherina)

And right on cue, the nasty lookalike appeared in the middle of yesterday’s session in Kent. The panther cap (Amanita pantherina) is another close relative of the fly agaric and blusher, and it contains similar toxins to the former, except considerably more of them. Panther caps are right on the border of being fatally poisonous – eat one or two and you are probably just going to have a very unpleasant experience, eat an unhealthy plateful of them and you might just die.

So how do you tell them apart? Panthercaps (left) do not “blush” like the blusher, and have more spiky and pronounced veil-remnants (spots) on the cap, and these are white rather than pinky-grey. They also have a different sort of stem base – the blusher has a bulb (volva) which merges neatly into the stem, whereas the panther cap has a “step” or rim around what is left of the volva. My advice is to do what I did: do not collect blushers for the pot until you’ve found and identified a panther cap.

Blackberries fruiting in profusion, end of August 2013.

Blackberries fruiting in profusion, end of August 2013.

Having had such a successful day yesterday, I decided to go out early this afternoon in the sunshine and explore some local bits of countryside in my new home town of Hastings. I ended up not quite where I intended to go, walking out on a wooden walkway that led to a viewing platform (a dead end) in the middle of a very large reed bed. On my way back to the woodland I’d intended to visit, I stumbled upon enough blackberries to keep me busy for the whole afternoon. It seems 2013 is going to be a bumper year for certain types of fruit. It is reportedly the best year in several for apples (and the tree at the bottom of my garden would appear to confirm this), and if this lot is anything to go by then it is also going to be a storming year for blackberries.

Watch out for those mushrooms – it is all about to kick off.


Three from Up North


Mushroom season 2013 is certainly just around the corner, and may well have already started. The last week has seen a marked increase in the number and variety of pictures being posted on the internet, especially of all sorts of boletes (mushrooms with pores rather than gills). 2012 was a bad year for boletes, so we’re due a good one. I have not been out mushrooming in the south east for the last three weeks, so I can’t provide any first-hand evidence of what is fruiting down here, but I can categorically state that the mushroom season has already started in Scotland.

I’ve just returned from a week in the far north of the UK, most of which was spent walking, in search of fungi. There were plenty of boletes around – a wide selection from three of the four major genera (boletus, suillus and xerocomus). I saw only a single leccinum – a (very common) brown birch bolete (L. scabrum). I found several mass-fruitings of chanterelles, blushers (Amanita rubescens) in multiple locations and lots of fly agarics (A. muscaria) in one location. Other edible species included deceivers, oyster mushrooms, fairy ring mushrooms, russulas and loads of field mushrooms. This is all stuff that can be found all over the UK, but my primary reason for spending some time north of the border was to locate and photograph some things that I would rarely or never find down here in the south. Three of these are worthy of mention:

Angel’s Wings (Pleurocybella porrigens)

Angel's Wings (Pleurocybella porrigens)

Angel’s Wings (Pleurocybella porrigens)

Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Both the common and latin names seem to suggest this one must be good to eat. It’s also a rather pretty fungus, looking a lot like a pure white version of oyster mushrooms. Indeed I have seen somebody in the UK post a picture of them and confidently identify them as “Oyster Mushrooms: edible!” It is in fact unrelated to the pleurotus species, belonging instead to the Marasmiaceae family, the only well-known member of which is the fairy ring mushroom (Marasmius oreades). You will also find no shortage of recipes on the internet, for this is a traditionally eaten species. I did not eat it. I had actually intended to try a little bit, but they turned up when I was en-route to somewhere I found loads of other things, and I somehow managed to lose track of them.

You may well have guessed by now that there is a question-mark over their edibility. If so then you’re right, and it’s a big one: in 2004, fifty-nine people in Japan were poisoned by this species, seventeen of whom died. The cause of death, frighteningly, was acute encephalopathy: they died of massive brain lesions in the cerebral cortex. Doesn’t sound so appealing now, does it! These deaths were more than a little mysterious. Why did it suddenly happen in 2004, and not before or since? What is the connection with kidney function, since all of the fatalities involved people who had pre-existing kidney problems? We now have at least some of these answers, and they are explained in full here. The short version is that these mushrooms contain a very high level of an amino acid precursor called pleurocybellaziridine, which, when ingested, reacts with various other chemicals in the body to produce six amino acids that do not usually occur in humans. For reasons that are still unclear, when persons who have inefficient kidneys eat a large quantity of this species, a significant amount of pleurocybellaziridine reaches their brain, where it reacts with other chemicals producing these novel amino acids which in turn cause the fatal brain injuries. The reason this all happened in 2004 was that that was a particularly good year for this species in Japan – a large amount of it was available, and the fruiting bodies were also very large, so a lot of it was consumed.

Eating small quantities of this fungus is highly unlikely to be dangerous, but given that not everybody who has a kidney problem knows they have a kidney problem and that we do not have sufficient information to predict when the next outbreak of of pleurocybella poisoning will occur, or where, then I think the advice has got to be to steer clear of them.

P. porrigens is common in the Scottish Highlands, becoming increasingly rare the further south you go, currently not occuring in the south of England at all (although it appears to be spreading southwards).

Hoof Fungus (Fomes fomentarius)

Hoof Fungus (Fomes fomentarius)

Hoof Fungus (Fomes fomentarius)

This one is not edible, because it is rock hard. I’ve only ever seen it once before, and that was the previous time I visited Scotland in search of fungi. On that occasion I found only one fruiting body, which I kept as a memento of that holiday. I still have it, twenty years later.

This time I found them plastered all over a large, dead tree. The species is both parasitic and saprobic – it will kill a weak tree and then continue to feed on its corpse. It has two common names. The first derives from its shape – it’s quite obviously hoof-like. The second derives from its use, and indicates why it is of interest from more than a purely mycological or aesthetic angle: tinder fungus. The fungus has to be processed (soaked in water, then beaten and stretched to separate the fibres) in order to produce a substance called “amadou”, which in addition to being used as tinder has also been used to produce clothing, to stop bleeding and is still used in fly fishing to dry the flies.

F. fomentarius does occur throughout the UK, but is much more common in the north.

Russula paludosa

Russula paludosa

Russula paludosa

This has to be my favourite find of the last few days. Russula is such a tricky genus that I’m always pleased when I manage to identify a new one, especially if it turns out to be edible. I do not use microscopy or chemicals, which means that I’m often unable to work out which species of russula I have found. Some of them have some sort of distinctive feature that renders them more easily identifiable, but it is usually only if I find quite a lot of them and spend quite a bit of time narrowing down the possibilities that I stand any chance of figuring it out. A comprehensive guide book is essential (preferably more than one), and you must note the colour, the habitat, the nearby trees, the smell, the taste of the gills (both immediately and after a while) and also how far the cap cuticle peels from the edge to the middle. In this case it was possible, by a process of elimination, to work out that the purple russula I’d found was an edible species that is just about restricted to the highlands. There were plenty in the area of woodland I found them in though, so I took a few for the pot, and was not disappointed. It is also common (and a prized edible) in Scandinavia. NB: there are two very similar species – bright red rather than purple-red like these – that will give you a very nasty stomach ache!

I am planning on making another trip to Scotland next August. For me, mushroom season just got longer.

Brighton Food Festival Masterclasses


Tickets are now available for two mushroom foraging masterclasses on the closing weekend of the Brighton Autumn Harvest Food Festival (Saturday 14th and Sunday 15th of September).

A typical mid-September collection of (mainly) edible fungi, primarily boletes in this case, but there's also some russulas, amethyst deceivers and millers in there, as well as an inedible (too bitter) species that the collector was hoping (in vain) might be hallucinogenic.

A typical mid-September collection of (mainly) edible fungi, primarily boletes in this case, but there’s also a parasol, some russulas, amethyst deceivers and millers in there, as well as an inedible (too bitter) species that the collector was hoping (in vain) might be hallucinogenic.

These will be held in the Live Food Show Marquee on Hove Lawns at 11am. The aim is to give a general introduction to foraging for wild mushrooms in the UK, but with a hands-on emphasis on whatever is actually growing in the Sussex countryside at that time. Each year is different, and the middle of September can turn out to be anything between the start of the season, when things are only just getting going, to the point where the biggest variety of species are available of any time in the year. It all depends on the weather. However, some things are pretty much guaranteed, so I’ll be surprised if I’m not able to bring along, for example, some fairy ring mushrooms (Marasmius oreades) and their deadly lookalike fool’s funnel (Clitocybe rivulosa). I would also normally expect to find some chanterelles around this time, and a nice selection of boletes, but who knows what the Mushroom Gods will bring us? One thing for sure is whatever I manage to find in Sussex that weekend, there will be more of it growing for other people to find. This is a typical feature of the way the fungi grow – the same species appears at the same time in multiple locations where the conditions have been similar (and this can include most of England, not just the Home Counties).

Books and the internet are invaluable learning tools, but there is no substitute for actually seeing, touching and smelling a wild mushroom. I will be bringing edible species, poisonous species and very common species. As well as introducing the foraging and identification of wild fungi, I’ll be cooking up some samples for people to try, and the students will also be able to take some of the edible ones home with them.

See festival website for tickets.

Chyewks! (chickens of the wood, on yew)


“Where poisoning does occur, in animals or humans, there may be no symptoms and death may follow within a few hours of ingestion. If symptoms do occur, they include trembling, staggering, coldness, weak pulse and collapse” (from www.thepoisongarden.co.uk, in reference to yew.)

First, the easy bit. Chicken of the woods (sulphur polypore/shelf, Laetiporus sulphureus) is a bracket fungus, fairly common in the UK and just coming into season now. Unlike most wild fungi, the danger associated with this species has nothing to do with identification; it’s easy to identify, because of its bright colours and distinct smell, and the only things you could conceivably mix it up with aren’t poisonous. It’s also, when still young, fresh and tender, absolutely delicious – it’s right up there with chanterelles and penny buns in the premier league of edible wild fungi.

Chicken of the woods, growing on yew.

Chicken of the woods, growing on yew.

So what’s the problem? It often grows on yew is the problem. It grows on plenty of other trees too, with a preference for oak, chestnut, cherry and willow, but I probably see it on yew more often than any of these others – and yew is associated with more than its fair share of mystery and mythology of its own, and rightly feared for its toxicity, which some people claim is transferred to the fungus when it grows on this tree. Chicken of the woods is also claimed by some sources to cause problems in a significant minority (5-15%) of the population even if it isn’t growing on yew, although some people to believe the two situations are linked, and that the minority in question have unwittingly eaten chickens from yew.

Last week, people all over the UK started posting pictures of chicken of the woods; 2013 is a good year for this fungus. One individual posted a picture of a very large specimen growing on yew, and in addition to having eaten some without coming to harm she also stated that she knew somebody who had been collecting and eating the fungus from the same tree for the last twenty years, with no ill-effects! So yesterday morning I decided to go for a long walk in a chunk of ancient yew woodland in Sussex to see what I could find, and I found chicken of the woods in abundance. Time, I thought, to kill two birds with one stone. It’s a long time since I found a large amount of this species in an edible state and not growing on yew, and I’ve not had much of a chance to experiment with different recipes. I’ve also never consumed a large quantity growing on yew.

Nearly finished cleaning it.  Just a few scraps of bark to be removed.

Nearly finished cleaning it. Just a few scraps of bark to be removed.

I say “walk”, but “scramble” would be more appropriate, as the woodland in question sits on the steep, scarp slope of the downs, and the ground is covered in loose chalk and flint. I lost my footing at one point, slipped over and cut the heel of my hand. The wound was a bit bloody and messy, I had no means of cleaning it, and by then I was keen just to get back to my car without having any more accidents, with my booty and camera intact. It was only as I was driving home that I realised the wound was hurting more than expected. I stopped, and on close inspection I found a small yew needle buried in my hand. As soon as I plucked it out, the pain stopped. A brief internet search will produce many anecdotal reports of a similar nature: yew foliage is potently unpleasant stuff.

Therefore, if you’re contemplating eating chicken of the woods from yew then you’d better make damned sure you remove every last scrap of foliage and bark from the surface first. Like all bracket fungi, this species will incorporate debris as it grows, and if the debris in question is yew foliage or bark then you’re eating yew foliage and bark, and there’s no question about the danger inherent in that; the toxins in yew do not break down when the plant material dies/dries!

Chicken of the woods, with chives and double cream.

Chicken of the woods, with chives and double cream.

So I cleaned it, very carefully. I then spent the next hour or so experimenting with recipes. I tried it with various different herbs and things (rosemary, thyme, chives, onion), fried with butter or olive oil, served with white toast or brown toast, on its own or covered in cream, etc… By the time I’d finished I’d eaten at least three times as much as would be consumed in an ordinary meal. I can report my findings: my favourite combination was to cook it in butter for 3 or 4 minutes, then add a generous helping of chives and finish it off with some double cream, then serve with brown toast. Truly scrumptious! I then lay down for a nap and to let my dinner get down…and wait to see if I developed any nasty symptoms or dropped dead with no warning.

I’m still here. I experienced no unpleasant effects whatsoever, and decided to cook up another load for my other half when she came home later that evening. I also had to have some more myself, of course. Would have been rude not to…

I am not going to recommend that other people go out and consume chicken of the woods growing on yew. My experiment is not absolutely conclusive. It is possible (likely, even) that some individuals are more sensitive to the toxins than others (if you have a history of heart problems then you should definitely steer clear). It is also possible that some specimens end up containing more tree-originating toxins than others. However, I suspect that yew material incorporated into the fungus is much more likely to lead to problems than the fungus itself.

I, for one, will be eating chicken of the woods from yew again. I will also offer it to my friends, although I’ll ask them to read this first.

Keep safe,


Mountain Spinach Surprise!


I was already planning on writing a blog entry about the goosefoots and the oraches (pronounced oraks, I have recently learned), but yesterday something turned up that really sealed the deal. It was supposed to be my day off (from foraging), and I was en-route to the beach when I spotted something interesting (it was hard to miss) on a scruffy roundabout in Newhaven. I initially assumed it was some sort of goosefoot, although I didn’t know which. I now know it was a species that appears in none of my foraging books, nor in my wild flower key.

I was going to call this entry “Amaranthaceae”, after the family of plants these two genera belong to. This group comes into its own in the summer, and they are nearly all edible. Most are annuals, and they don’t start growing until the end of spring, and are at their best for collecting from about now until mid-summer. In addition to the goosefoots and oraches, there are several other important species. The glassworts (marsh samphire) look nothing like the other members of the group – or anything else for that matter. Sea purslane, which dominates salt marshes around much of the coast of the UK, is also easily distinguished. Sea beet is very common, and a good one for foraging (unsurprisingly, given that it is the wild ancestor of beetroot, sugar beet and chard). Amaranth itself is a genus of plants well known as a cereal crop, native to the Americas but introduced into the UK and often found growing in waste ground alongside other members of the family. But the blog entry I was planning to write was about the goosefoots (genus Chenopodium) and oraches (genus Atriplex).

A sea of young goosefoots/oraches.  Could be fat hen, could be good king henry, could be common orache, could be...  Picture taken last week in the currently-empty aqueduct that takes the Wey and Arun canal over the river Arun (Lording's Lock).

A sea of young goosefoots/oraches. Could be fat hen, could be good king henry, could be common orache, could be another member of Amaranthaceae. Picture taken last week in the currently-empty aqueduct that takes the Wey and Arun canal over the river Arun (by Lording’s Lock, near Billingshurst, West Sussex).

Why lump these two together? Because I have serious trouble telling them apart, and they are closely related anyway. The botanical distinction is to do with reproductive structures – the oraches have seperate male and female flowers, and the goosefoots don’t. This does help to tell them apart (the male flowers on the oraches are easily noticed), but only when the plants have started to mature. Apart from this they look very similar, grow in similar places (generally), and are of similar uses from a foraging point of view. And because none of them are poisonous, if you know you’ve got a goosefoot or an orache, then you know you can eat it.

There is one notable lookalike that foragers need to be aware of. Maple-leaved goosefoot can resemble the deadly-poisonous Datura (thorn-apple). Provided you remember this one, you aren’t likely to get into trouble foraging for members of this family.

There are lots of young goosefoots and oraches around at the moment. The most common of all, and probably the best to eat, is fat hen (Chenopodium album). This species is very variable indeed, which is part of the reason why the whole group is tricky. It is an early coloniser of disturbed ground which is a bit like spinach but considerably more tasty. You can use it for anything you’d use spinach for, and later in the year you can also collect the seeds.

So, back to yesterday. I was driving round a roundabout and I spotted something which, even from a car, was instantly recognisable as a goosefoot – or so I thought. But it was a beautiful red colour, and I was not familiar with any red goosefoots. I was aware, however, that there is a plant called “red goosefoot”, and I immediately assumed that this must be what I’d seen on the roundabout. So I parked my car and made my way through the traffic to the middle of the roundabout. The earth had recently been disturbed, and several species were busy colonising it. One of them was a goosefoot (fig-leaved goosefoot, which is very similar to fat hen, the only difference being the distinctly three-lobed lower leaves.) The other was a beautiful, deep red plant that I did not recognise. A closer inspection of the leaves confirmed without doubt that this was a member of the Amaranthaceae, and since I had no books with me I just picked a load of it and continued on my way to Cuckmere Haven (which, for those who’ve never heard of it, is just about the last unspoiled river estuary in south-east England, and well worth a visit). Only when I returned home and googled for pictures of red goosefoot did I realise that this had to be something else; red goosefoot is nothing like as red as this plant, and has much smaller leaves.

Red orache / mountain spinach (Atriplex hortensis var. rubra) and fig-leaved goosefoot (Chenopodium ficifolium).

Red orache / mountain spinach (Atriplex hortensis var. rubra) and fig-leaved goosefoot (Chenopodium ficifolium).

I checked my foraging books, and my wild flower books, and this plant wasn’t in any of them. At this point I was saved by the internet. As a hopeful stab in the dark, I typed “red orache” into google (it was red, after all, and if it wasn’t a goosefoot then maybe it was an orache…) I was rewarded with pictures of a plant looking just like mine, variously called “mountain spinach”, “french spinach” or “red orach” (Atriplex hortensis var rubra). Turns out the seed is sold in garden centres, and it is still a popular cultivated vegetable in France. It is grown in the UK both for the table and as an ornamental.

I have no idea what it is doing growing in the middle of a roundabout in Newhaven, but I’m glad I found it. I fried it with onion, expecting it to lose its colour when cooked. Not only did it retain much of its colour, but it also turned the onion red.  It’s also a first-class salad leaf and comes thoroughly recommended, although I suspect you’ll need some luck to find it growing wild in the UK.

Early Summer Mushrooming


The start of June is not usually notable for being a good time to go foraging for mushrooms, but when the conditions are favourable then it’s not bad.  And they are currently favourable!

There are still spring mushrooms to be found – the St George’s mushrooms which took such a long time to get properly going this year are making up for it by still going strong into June; I found a new flush of these a couple of days ago, up on the Downs near Brighton. 

Dryad's saddle or pheasant's back (Polyporous squamosus).

Dryad’s saddle or pheasant’s back (Polyporous squamosus). Picture taken last week.

Another mushroom which is often found at this time of year and which is doing particularly well in 2013 is dryads saddle.  These are a great one for a beginner to go looking for, because of their combination of being quite common and almost impossible to mis-identify.  They are a bit hit-and-miss in terms of edibility at the moment though – I’m finding quite a lot which is too tough to eat even though it is still rather small.  I had previously assumed that the larger they get (and they can eventually get truly enormous), the tougher they would be, but this year it has become apparent to me that things aren’t quite that simple.  I’m finding some small ones which are too tough to eat, and slightly larger ones which are still edible.  The rule with these is that if you can pass your knife easily through the flesh, then they are edible.  If you struggle to slice them, then don’t bother, because it will be like trying to eat leather.

Fairy ring mushrooms (Marasmius oreades).  Picture taken late May.

Fairy ring mushrooms (Marasmius oreades). Picture taken last week.

The other species I’ve found in the last few days can both appear any time from about now, right through until the end of the main mushroom season in November.  They just turn up when they feel like the conditions are right.  Both come with warnings attached.  The first is the fairy ring mushroom (Marasmius oreades).  This is an undeniable delicacy, but is also one of the species which regularly gets mixes up with something poisonous, sometimes with fatal results.  It is so named because it grows in rings (in grass, always).  Unfortunately it is not the only species that grows in rings in grass, and there is another similarly-common mushroom, about the same size and not much different in colour, which can kill you.  It’s called an ivory funnel or fool’s funnel (Clitocybe rivulosa), and I can’t recommend anybody go picking fairy ring mushrooms until they are absolutely certain they can tell the difference between these two species.  Even more unfortunately, this is itself rather difficult until you’ve found both species more than once.  It took me several years before I was confident enough to collect them.

Horse Mushroom (Agaricus arvensis).  Picture taken today.

Horse Mushroom (Agaricus arvensis). Picture taken today (June 3rd).

The other May-November species I found this morning, and I don’t recall ever seeing it quite this early before.  It’s the first Agaricus (relatives of the shop and field mushrooms) I have seen this year, and it regularly turns up about mid-summer but not usually right at the start of June.  Field mushrooms (Agaricus campestris) can appear as early as April, but these are far too big to be mistaken for those.  This is A. arvensis – the horse mushroom.  It can be distinguished from other agaricuses by the “cogwheel” ring, slight smell of almonds and large size.  Care must be taken not to confuse it with the poisonous yellow stainer (A. xanthodermus), which smells of phenol (like TCP) and bruises bright yellow (horse mushrooms also bruise a *little* yellow, but not bright yellow).  I found these growing in a sheep field on the Downs near Eastbourne.

2013 has turned out to be a pretty good year for mushrooms so far.  I can’t compete with the bountiful supply of morels and giant puffballs being reported by one internet poster from Yorkshire, but given we are still only at the start of the summer, it’s not looking bad at all.

Good luck and stay safe!