Updated: Oct 11, 2020
Humongous Fungus. I’m talking here about the Parasol Mushroom (Macrolepiota procera), that likes to pop out of the ground right about now. Given a good day of sun it can, by evening, be 30cm plus in diameter – about the size of a dinner plate. Having this for dinner, cooked with garlic and, for me, vegan butter, goes a long way to making autumn my favourite time of the year.
I love mushrooms generally, my Polish wife saw to that. Mushroom are big over there! It’s funny how some countries are much bigger on mushrooms that others. In Scandinavia and Eastern Europe picking mushrooms at the weekend in the norm. In Norway they have mushroom inspectors (who you can take your mushroom basket to for approval), in France not so long ago, you could take your picked mushroom to the pharmacy for identification. Here it just doesn’t seem to be the thing. There are some brilliant foragers about (@islandwildfood, @cotswoldforager, are among my favourites on Instagram, and, for troves of mushroom information, @mushroomphotos), and foraging is becoming more popular in this country, but still, it seems, not so much so – there is a place I know where parasols pop up in abundance, with only me to pick them. Not saying I mind!
Other than parasols, of the edibles, we also have Birch Boleti, Jelly Ears, and Horse Mushrooms to keep us in clover through the year. Of these the parasols are definitely the finest, and when there are more than I can manage I leave some as a welcome gift for guests.
Another mushroom I was drawn to – I couldn’t not be, its smell was so strong – is the Common Stinkhorn. Now this fella, otherwise known as Phallus Impudicus (and as it is pictured below you can see why), has an interesting tactic for spreading its spores – it stinks with such a vile odour, basically of carrion (though, have to admit, I actually like it!) that flies can’t resist it. They crawl all over its gooey, sticky head, known as the gleba, and take some of its spores with them to their next destination. For the Stinkhorn, job done! Perverts that we, humankind, are, and despite zero evidence, historically we decided that this mushroom was a powerful aphrodisiac and it was popularly used as one. I can only imagine that this failed outright – I mean, it just happens to look and smell like a stinking dick! What is aphrodisiac about that?
Needless to say, I didn’t touch the above. I am what Long Litt Woon calls a ‘defensive mushroomer’ – I stick to what I know and play it safe. For those more knowledgeable and adventurous than me there are plenty more to be foraged around here, whatever your purpose (yes, I mean Liberty Caps!).
Now Parasols are big, but, of course, the real Humongous fungus is the Armillaria ostoyae, a type of fungus that lives above ground in hardwood and coniferous forests. It is the world's biggest living organisms, attacking the barks of trees and travelling for miles between them. In 1988, scientists in Oregon found a single specimen that had spread 8.8 square kilometres and was estimated to be around 2,400 years old.
As well as being big, and pretty much ruling the planet, there is such poetry in the names of the various fungi, especially the bad ones. Here are some of my favourite, healthy and not; King Bolete (yeah, you hearing me?), The Prince, Satan’s Bolete (there is a reason they called me this! Heed!), the Destroying Angel (so beautiful, so deadly!), the Paltry Puffball (aww, I feel sorry for this one), Funeral Bell (can’t say I didn’t tell you!), Poison Pie, Common Hedgehog Tooth, Red-hot Lactarius, Wood Blewit, Fairy Ring Marasmius, Liberty Cap (fascinating name, can it be true?), the Sickener (well, at least not the funeral bells), Dead Man’s Fingers (coming out of the ground to drag you down), Corn Smut (what grain gets off on!).
A couple of great books about mushrooms:
The Way Through the Woods by Long Litt Woon
Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake
And some songs about mushrooms:
Eminem – My Fault (remarkable how many Eminem songs mention mushrooms really!)
The Three Mushrooms – Gilberto Gil
Rainy Day Mushroom Pillow – Strawberry Alarm Clock (Though maybe you should avoid these particular mushrooms)
Gather in the Mushrooms – Benny Hill
Peace Music – Pizzicato Five (trust me, it is!)