Now the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness is upon us, we can expect to see mushrooms, moulds, fungi and toadstools.
There must have been some along the walks through the water meadows between Winchester and St Cross taken by Keats during his stay in Winchester in 1819. All manner of autumnal things are mentioned in his Ode to Autumn but fungi are not included. Read it for yourself here. Perhaps it was their association with death and decay that offended against the sensibilities of the day. Indeed Keats knew by then that his days were numbered by his consumption.
But fungi are essential for decomposition and decay. They are the ultimate re-cyclers, they break down mighty trees and help new saplings to grow. Animal or vegetable; they are neither but classed as fungi, a special kingdom of their own in the classification of living things. Modern genetics shows fungi to be more closely related to animals than to plants. They produce chitin, the stuff that insect exoskeltons are made from. They have no chlorophyll which plants use for photosynthesis and no cellulose which plants have in their cell walls.
What we call a mushroom is only the reproductive part of a fungus. The real business takes place underground where delicate threads of fungus called the mycellium made up of hyphae threads spread over large areas. In many species the hyphae penetrate plant roots so that the plant and mycellium live as symbionts. The plant roots provide carbohydrates and the hyphae provide minerals, especially phosphorus, from the soil.
The largest living thing
There is a honey fungus, Amillaria ostoyae, in Oregon, USA, said to spread over 8.9 square Km of forest. It is possibly 2400 years old and, if dug up, would weigh 605 tons. It is assumed that it is all from one spore and not several individual organisms mixed up. Nevertheless, fungi can be enormous by their spread of fine cotton like filaments.
A blue whale, the largest mammal, weighs in at a mere 190 tons.
Can you eat it?
The majority of fungi can be eaten but most are unremarkable from a gastronomic point of view. Many will give you a bellyache, a few will poison and kill you. The most notable mushrooms I ever ate were hand picked from an uninhabited island off Brakne-Hobi in Sweden. We were up at dawn and rowed our skiff across to the islands and picked yellow mushrooms. Then we rowed back and cooked them on a fire outdoors. I have no idea what species they were. Most yellow mushrooms are poisonous or at best unpalatable. These were delicious with bacon and eggs and we had no after effects.
The meat substitute, Quorn, is made of fungus.
Can it eat you?
Well no, they cannot literally eat you but they can consume you. Immunocompromised people are open to fungus infections which can kill. Most of us have had fungal infections, athelete’s foot for instance. Candida, a yeast, lives in and on us all but sometimes produces symptoms if we have taken long term antibiotics, have diabetes or just get run down. Sometimes a ball of fungus can grow in the lungs, like a tumour.
A type of fungi may be involved in some people with dandruff.
They can’t eat us but they can eat our food. Many crop and plant diseases are fungal. Fungi and moulds spoil stored foods.
Claviceps purpurea or Ergot is a fungus that infects rye. It produces ergotamine and compounds related to LSD (lysergic acid di-ethylamide). In medieval times inhabitants of villages were sometimes poisoned and suffered hallucinations, irrational behaviour, severe burning sensations in the limbs, convulsions and death. The burning sensations lead to the toxic state being called St Anthony’s Fire.
Even infants were not spared its effects as ergotamine is secreted in breast milk from the affected mother.
Imagine a medieval mountain village, cut off in the winter by snow and with the grain store infected with ergot. The inhabitants had to eat the grain, they did not understand that it was the grain making them all mad. Sufferers were often regarded as witches and killed, for the good of their souls.
The Hospital Brothers of St Anthony at St Antoine l’Abbaye, in Isere, France, specialised in alleviating the symptoms of ergot poisoning. The abbey was founded in medieval times. The cure they offered was attributed to the relics of St Anthony which the Abbey possessed.
In the middle ages Ergotamine was known to cause abortions and used for that purpose. Today it is a useful drug to stop post bleeding after birth, as a treatment for migraine and other conditions.
Are they any use?
Yes, and not just for eating. Penicillin comes from a fungus, so do some other antibiotics. Where would we be without the single celled fungus, called a yeast, which turns grapes into wine, barley into beer and soya bean into sauce. It is yeast that makes our bread rise and other fungi makes our green cheeses. A world without Marmite is unthinkable for most of us though some would argue the world may be a better place without it.
Fungi are the source of the enzymes that enable out detergents to wash whiter than white.
There are two classes of mushrooms containing toxic substances which alter brain function. In many societies the hallucinations and distorted reality from these compounds is equated with religious and spiritual significance.
Psylocybin is a drug found in over 100 species most prevalent in Mexico but also growing in Europe. These are the hallucinogenic mushrooms favoured by people who like to mess with their brains. They tend not to be lethal nor is psylocybin addictive. Recovery takes about 8 hours but there have been reports of long term effects. These are difficult to evaluate as people who take psylocybin are likely to have taken other drugs as well.
The genus Amanita has many species which produce muscarine. This drug produces hallucinations, agitation, delerium, seizures and death. You have to eat quite a lot of them for it to kill you and spring and summer mushrooms are said to be more poisonous than those gathered in the autumn.
Fly agaric, the one with a red cap and white spots is the most easily recognised of this group but not necessarily the most poisonous.
In Victorian times fairy rings were thought to have magical, deathly or erotic properties. Richard Dadd and other artists liked to paint imaginary scenes there. Dadd’s painting was risque at the time as the dancing fairies are part naked.
There was a fairy ring on the cricket pitch at my school; just about where Third man stood to field. I do not remember anything magical happening there.
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