By Ruth D’Alessandro, The Wildlife Gardener The Wildlife Gardeners have been out mushroom foraging again. But this time we also solved a potentially deadly mystery. You’ll remember the’funny little grey Halma-piece shaped mushrooms’ in’Cep this way…‘ ?
These were so bizarre that I sent a picture of them to the wonderful John Wright, resident mycologist at River Cottage and author of Mushrooms: River Cottage Handbook No.1. I saw John give a talk about wild mushrooms at the Taste of London Expo a few years ago, and he has patiently replied to my fungal emails ever since. Of the’Halma’ mushrooms, John said:
These are puffballs – the Pestle Puffball, Handkea excipuliformis. It is in Roger Phillips’ book but his pictures are of rather squat individuals. All puffballs are edible as long as they are pure white inside.
I looked at some images of Pestle Puffballs and although the shape was sort of right, the texture of the skin was much pricklier than the smooth’Halmas’. Much as I was unwilling to challenge John’s mycological knowledge and experience, I didn’t feel comfortable that these were puffballs, or edible at that. A week later, we went back to the woods. The’Pestle Puffballs’ had matured:
And turned into something not only un-puffball-like but rather sinister-looking:
In the words of Vic Reeves, I couldn’t let it lie, so I emailed John once more with the pictures above. He replied:
These are Cortinarius as you may have suspected. They are extraordinarily difficult to tell apart so I cannot give you a species name at the moment – I will see if it is something straightforward and let you know if I have success. They do look rather splendid and the banding on the stem may help an id. No Cortinarius is particularly edible and several are deadly!
Hmm. Cortinarius. The genus of mushrooms that includes the deadly Cortinarius speciosissimus that destroyed the kidneys of Horse Whisperer author Nicholas Evans and his wife when they ate it by mistake? I may be being over-dramatic here, and my’Halma Cortinarius’ may turn out to be fairly benign, but this episode throws up some serious caveats for the amateur mushroom hunter. Firstly, it is difficult even for experts to identify fungi by pictures alone. All John had was a photo; I was actually in the environment, up close to the mushrooms, and able to see another squashed’Halma’ showing pinkish-grey gills nearby. I know puffballs don’t have gills; it couldn’t be a puffball. Secondly, don’t pick immature mushrooms. You don’t know what they are going to be when they grow up. This gives even more resonance of good sense to the mushroom-hunter’s maxim:’Leave the babies and the elderly and take two-thirds of the rest‘. Thirdly, you WILL encounter poisonous fungi. As John says: ‘I have seldom set foot in a wood in the autumn without seeing at least one deadly fungus so if you are at all careless you will eventually succumb’. Finally, choose some species that you are absolutely certain of identifying correctly. We started off with boletes and giant puffballs, graduating this year to chanterelles:
I’m still wary of anything with gills under the cap, even disregarding a ring of lovely field mushrooms (Agaricus campestris) on local pasture back in August, because I wouldn’t let myself be 100% sure. The woods on Saturday were full of edible Blusher mushrooms (Amanita rubescens). They showed the Blusher’s identifying characteristic: its white flesh turns to pink/red if damaged (by slugs or you). All the other foragers had left these prizes well alone, and so did I. They’re Amanitas, just too toadstooly to take the risk. I wouldn’t dare. Or would I…? 😉