The end of summer is unmistakably upon us. Cooler, greyer, darker earlier.
Heavy dew in the morning. Autumn beckons.
There are those who rejoice. My wife loves autumn; it is her favourite season.
And I can see some of autumn’s attractions. The landscape can be very
beautiful, especially if you have the good fortune to live near the New
Forest, which can be ablaze with yellow, gold and red.
But hovering in the background is the period most of us dread – the seemingly endless winter months. From the First of November until mid-March at least, it’s winter. And as if that weren’t enough to depress anyone, the nightmare spendfest called Christmas lurks in those wintry shadows.
If there is a consolation, it’s that September and October can be lovely.
And there is another consolation for some of us. It is the season for fungi – mushrooms and toadstools. Again, I have the good fortune to live near the New Forest, where a wonderful variety of mushrooms, toadstools, earth-balls, puffballs and bracket fungi can be found. But even with experience and modern field guides, identifying them is tricky and time-consuming.
Mycologists (botanists who specialise in fungi) use scientific (Latin) names. English names have been coined for some of the better known mushrooms and toadstools: Shaggy Caps (also known as Lawyer’s Wigs), Parasols, the Oyster Mushroom, the Beefsteak Fungus, the Penny Bun – to say nothing of the Death Cap and the Destroying Angel. In truth, I’ve seldom heard these allegedly popular names used.
There are thousands of different species of mushroom and toadstool. A few are edible and delicious. A few are poisonous, some fatal. The great majority lie somewhere in between: not very nice, but not harmful either. If you want to experiment with some of the edible species, there are plenty of books available to help. But remember that the only really safe way is to identify with certainty anything you’re going to eat. Disregard all those old saws about blackening sixpences or being nibbled by rabbits. Some of the deadliest species can be eaten with impunity by other mammals.
I’ve tried a dozen or so species over the years, but for my money there’s little to beat the field mushroom family, Agaricus. There’s a variety of closely related species in the family, but the one to watch out for is the so-called Yellow Stainer (Agaricus xanthodermus). Looking like a horse mushroom, this species immediately turns bright yellow when cut or bruised. It won’t kill you, but it can make you very sick.
The family Amanita contains the deadliest of all species, the Death Cap (Amanita phalloides). The tiniest quantity can bring death in appalling agony. There is also the all-white Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa) and that toadstool beloved of elves and goblins, the Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria), with its red cap and white spots.
Perhaps the safest way to enjoy autumn’s fungal feast is to photograph it. Then you can spend as long as you like poring over books trying to decide what you’ve seen. The book I use most is a photographic guide, ‘Mushrooms’ by Roger Phillips (Macmillan Reference, 2006).
Of course, you don’t have to struggle to identify the blighters. You can always just enjoy their strange beauty, leaving all that poring over books to geeks like me.