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We used to go foraying for fungi in September and October when the sun was still high in the sky. But the recent trend of warm, dry autumns and mild early winters is changing the calendar. November has now become the mushroom month.
Take my corner of East Wiltshire where I help to run fungus forays. Late autumn is suddenly the best time to find a woodland floor sprouting with toadstools, elf cups, stinkhorns and puffballs. The season can be short, for most fungi are wiped out by the first hard frosts. But in a good year it can be intense as the fungi make up for the drought of September with a last dramatic burst of growth.
On my forays we are in it for the fun. I find people enjoy fungi most when they are not offered long lists of names but an experience.
For example, we can enjoy the surprising range of tastes and smells of wild fungi without danger. People expect them to smell like commercial mushrooms. So it comes as a pleasant surprise when we find kinds that smell quite powerfully of radishes, swimming baths, train oil, calor gas, coconuts, boiled sweets or cheap scent (or ''ladies of the street'' as one field guide quaintly puts it). The pongs are part of the exotic chemistry of fungi, but they also lodge in the memory, like the smell of long forgotten school kitchens and sports halls.
My fellow forayers are usually happy to take a good sniff. But only the bravest are ready for the follow-up nibble. Some fungi taste unbearably hot, like raw chilli or Tabasco. A rather unfair trick is to get a volunteer to chew a sliver of fungus that will taste of nothing much for the first 15 seconds, then explode with mouth-numbing force. At the milder end, there are fungi that taste of honey, fresh dough, raw potatoes, carrots, nuts and aniseed. After tasting we spit them out. And we don't taste anything known to be poisonous (many poisonous fungi, I'm told, taste deceptively mild).
Another way in which fungi entertain us is visually. On warm November afternoons with slanting light, fungi sometimes smoulder as if on fire. The ''smoke'' is produced by astronomical numbers of their tiny spores escaping from the pores below the fungus.
If it starts to patter with rain, we look for puffballs. When a raindrop strikes one of these round white bodies, it releases a puff of spores like smoke from a cannon. Where there are clusters of small puffballs, the effect is similar to a miniature battle taking place with a barrage of spore-guns taking part in a fungal Waterloo.
What everyone wants to know is which fungi you can eat. The answer is those with which you are thoroughly familiar. Naming a fungi is like identifying a car: colour alone is not reliable. Neglecting this simple rule was why a famous novelist was poisoned last year when he assumed that some yellow mushrooms he found must be chanterelles.
Unfortunately, the long arm of political correctness has reached the fungus foray. We are seriously advised not to recommend eating wild fungi on the grounds that mistaken identity could lead to an expensive day in court. On my forays we take the risk, but no doubtful fungus should ever be eaten, and little brown jobs should be avoided altogether.
The other question I'm often asked is: what are fungi? They are simply fungi, neither plants nor animals. They embody a third way of life based on decay. While plants and animals consume, fungi dispose and recycle. Life without fungi would choke on its own waste.
This year, the season is nearly over before it started. But there are a few weeks left to enjoy a foray into this dark world. Like Hallowe'en pumpkins and bangers on bonfire night, fungi are the essence of late autumn.
Many fungi have English names, some of them traditional, others recently invented to aid their popularity. Here is a sample:
Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) This poisonous mushroom was once used as a fly trap. Attracted to the bright red scented caps, the fly took a lick and died. Agaric is an old name for a mushroom.
Honey fungus (Armillaria mellea) A notorious tree killer, it grows in clusters on tree stumps and buried wood. When young the caps are the colour of honey; they also taste sweet.
Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) This fan-shaped bracket fungus has alternate pale and dark bands, sometimes with a bluish sheen. An alternative name is turkey’s-tail.
Bog beacon (Mitrula paludosa) A matchstick-shaped fungus, it grows in wet ditches and bogs. Against a dark background of wet soil or peat, its bright orange colour really seems to glow.
Herald of winter (Hygrophorus hypothejus) This neat brown toadstool appears under conifers late in the year.
It is a fungal finishing flag: it means the season is nearly over.
Burgundydrop bonnet (Mycena haematopus) This modest 'bonnet cap’ or 'fairy bell’ leaks a red juice the colour of a fine Nuits-St Georges.
Cep or Penny Bun (Boletus edulis) Some edible fungi have several names. The name Cep was originally Spanish (from the Latin cippus, a stake). We often call it the Pennybun, but when sold it is porcini or 'little pigs’.
Candle-snuff Fungus (Xylaria hypoxylon) This common fungus of rotting logs reminded people of the blackened wick of a wax candle, though to see the resemblance you have to turn it upside down
Quote: Twiztidsage said: Another way in which fungi entertain us is visually. On warm November afternoons with slanting light, fungi sometimes smoulder as if on fire. The ''smoke'' is produced by astronomical numbers of their tiny spores escaping from the pores below the fungus.
I can't wait until I see something like this in my lifetime.