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Page last updated at 15:47 GMT, Thursday, 1 October 2009 16:47 UK
Autumnwatch: foraging for fungi

By Phil Howarth
site contributor

Destroying angel mushroom
Poisonous: a destroying angel mushroom

The start of autumn may be writ large in the changing colours of the leaves but it also brings plenty of small wonders with the arrival of the mushroom season.

A mild September has brought the sort of damp yet warm weather that is ideal for fruiting fungi, with some spectacular examples in Greater Manchester's parks and woodlands.

Anyone taking a country walk at present should be able to spot mushrooms, toadstools and bracket fungi growing out of the soil, dead leaves, animal dung or wood.

"The variety is fascinating," said Emily Orford, head warden at Lyme Park.

"It ranges from a gelatinous blob you might find on the ground that's actually a fungus to the big bracket fungi that attach themselves to trees.

"There's an amazing array of colours, shapes, textures and smells, as well as the taste for those that like to pick and eat them. They're just weirdly wonderful."

Edible mushrooms

Lyme Park
You can join a fungi foray at Lyme Park

Picking and eating wild mushrooms is still relatively uncommon in the UK but is much more popular in mainland Europe.

Emily added: "As a nation, we've always been quite suspicious of mushrooms because we've been too worried about poisoning whereas the French have been foraging and eating them right through history and are very comfortable with it.

"We also tend to give our poisonous mushrooms very strong names like destroying angels (Amanita bisporigera), which invokes a lot of fear but also fascinates people at the same time."

Mushrooms frequently appear in history and myths from the poisoning of the Roman Emperor Claudius by his wife in 54 AD to the mushroom-eating episode in Alice in Wonderland.


Some fungi are notorious not only for being poisonous but also for their hallucinogenic properties.

Parrot waxcap. Photo by Rosemary Winnall
Mushrooms can release up to 2.7 billion spores a day
Some smell of rotting meat to attract flies to carry spores away
The yeast used to make bread rise is a single-celled fungus
Penicillin is also a type of fungus
So are the veins in blue cheese

Country walkers would obviously need to be cautious about eating mushrooms found in the wild but guide books are available and certain varieties, such as the field mushroom, are easily recognisable.

Some of the more exotic examples may be inedible but they still make for wonderful viewing, said Emily.

"Part of the appeal is that some of them are quite fleeting," she said.

"For example, the stinkhorn is only at its best for about a day. It starts off as a little squashy egg; the next day it's this rather rude-looking phallic mushroom that smells of rotten flesh and the next day it's all crumbled away.

"Another favourite is the beefsteak bracket fungus," she added.

"It's a big lump of red, fleshy-looking fungi that you particularly find on oak trees. The spores are red and because it's gelatinous, it appears to drip red blood.

"The amethyst deceiver is also worth looking out for, because it's quite small but has a beautiful purple colour. The parrot waxcap (Hygrocybe psittacina) also has a very vibrant green colour and an unusual waxy feel."

For details of forays, contact the Forestry Commission in the North West; the National Trust; the British Mycological Society; or your local Wildlife Trust.

Picking tips

  • Never eat any mushroom that you are not absolutely certain has been identified correctly.
  • Use a good field guide, but don't rely absolutely on pictures in books - differences between fungi can be difficult to spot. Go out with an experienced guide.
  • When trying a mushroom for the first time, only eat in small amounts to make sure the body can cope with it.
  • Keep a small fresh portion of any mushroom you eat in the fridge. That way, if there is a reaction, you can easily identify the source.
  • Anyone wanting to pick fungi should ensure they have the landowners' permission to do so.
  • Picking mushrooms is not permitted on National Trust properties.


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