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December 2011

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Mushrooms and toadstools

Dick Warner outlines the behaviour of fungi in gardens.

From time to time most gardens witness the abrupt appearance of mushrooms or toadstools. What exactly are they? Well, they're fungi and there's no scientific difference between a mushroom and a toadstool, though the word 'mushroom' is more commonly used for edible species. Fungi are not plants, they can't photosynthesise and they belong to their own separate kingdom in the realm of living things. 

Flyagaric

Some of them are dreaded by gardeners. Honey fungus is a deadly parasite of trees. The fruiting bodies are quite variable in size and colour, but of course it's not these that do the damage. It's the rhizomorphs, long black strands like bootlaces that can be found under the bark or on the roots of infected trees and can also travel long distances through the soil to find other victims. The only small point in its favour is that the fruiting bodies are edible, though they must be cooked.

Most other species should be made welcome in the garden. Many of them are very beautiful, with fantastic shapes and unlikely colours - bright reds and oranges, purples or yellows - some of them are delicious and without fungi gardening would be impossible. They are an essential part of the ecology of the soil, breaking waste matter down so that it provides plant nutrients. They do the same in the compost bin and they help some plants, like peas, beans, alder trees and furze bushes, to extract nitrogen directly from the soil.

There are over three thousand species of fungi in Ireland and the larger ones can be roughly divided into two groups - woodland species and grassland species. The ones that like to grow in grass make up the smaller group. The most familiar species is the field mushroom, now much rarer that it was because of changing farm practices. Another species that is more tolerant of modern grassland management and often appears on lawns in autumn is the shaggy ink cap, also known as the ‘lawyer's wig'. Before the cap has fully opened it's quite good to eat, but a related and rather similar woodland species, the common ink cap, causes nausea if it's consumed in conjunction with alcohol and has been used as a therapy for recovering alcoholics. You can also eat the white puffballs that grow in grass when they're young, though they're a bit tasteless.

The woodland mushrooms, or at least those associated with trees or dead wood, tend to be more brightly coloured. The classic toadstool of children's stories is the red one with white spots - the fly agaric, so called because it was once used as a fly repellent. It's also a hallucinogen and it's use by northern European shamans has, by a curious process, given us the red and white colours of Santa's costume. Another colourful species appeared in my garden recently, sprouting around the stump of a larch tree. It's called plums and custard because it has a purple cap and a yellow stem. It was at least as attractive as most of the flowers I grow.

If you pick mushrooms to eat there are two things to bear in mind. The first is that what you are picking is the fruiting body. Its purpose is to ripen and spread millions of tiny spores so that the species can reproduce. Most mushrooms are best eaten before they're fully ripe so you are seriously reducing the chances of it reproducing. The second thing is that a tiny number of species are highly poisonous and a rather larger number can give you a sick stomach. To be safe you have to be quite sure you've identified the species correctly.

I have the strong impression that many species have become much rarer in recent years. The grassland species have been severely affected by silage cutting and changes in the way that pasture is managed. But I've also seen a decline in woodland species. Anyway, if I'm right and fungi are becoming more of a rarity it's yet another reason to cherish and enjoy them if they pop up in some part of your garden.

 

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