Yes, it’s still winter but there are signs of things to come and a good few things for the forager to look out for at the moment, some for now, some for the future.
I’ve seen quite a few of these fungi this winter. Found on dead Elm, Gorse, Beech and other trees they are happy to freeze, defrost and carry on growing. Built in “anti-freeze” is the cause of this and researchers are studying them in an attempt to make a safe-anti freeze that would be edible to us humans and our pets alike! it is the wild form of the cultivated Enoki or Enokitake sold widely, though looks very different as that is grown in cold, dark, carbon dioxide-rich growing rooms. Do check out the identification in several books / web sites. We like First Nature. They could be confused with Funeral Bell, which as it’s name suggests would not be a good thing. A spore print is helpful, with Velvet Shank having white spores and Funeral Bell’s being brown. Velvet Shank are a good edible mushrooms and should always be cooked before consuming. The stems are quite tough so only the caps are eaten, and the cap’s skin should be removed prior to cooking.
Scarlet Elf Cups
Lovely to see these beautiful fungi appearing over the last few weeks. Previous blog post on them here.
Yes, Gooseberries. Clearly it will be months until they fruit but… the bushes are in leaf now (late January / early February) and as not much is in leaf in the hedgerows at the moment, it makes spotting the bushes a LOT easier than later in the year.
Guests on my Spring Course get expert at spotting this. It looks like grass until you get your eye in but actually the leaves are tubes (like the closely-related Chives). The garlicky smell is a good check that you’ve got the right thing. As expected it has a lovely onion flavour. The leaves can be chopped and added to a salad, used as a garnish or put in a baked potato with mayonnaise. Crow Garlic does have a onion-like bulb but it is rather small and as always, it is illegal to uproot any plant without the landowners consent (Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981). The season for the leaves is Winter to late Spring. Later in the year, the entire seed head can be gathered and pickled while individual bulbils can be added to salads and bread.
I need not say any more about nettles other than in the right place they are already big enough for picking. Lots of ideas including and going well beyond the forager’s classic soup in this blog post.
In Dorset, I’ve seen this in places since the middle of January, but now in early February it’s big enough to use. Dedicated blog post with id, recipes etc here.
There have been several mushroom identification apps / web sites around for a while. Some are:
Digital versions of an established key – for example the key in Roger Phillips’ Mushrooms book moved to a web site and an app with photos and descriptions. Roger’s app was around for many years but has disappeared.
Visual keys. The MycoKey MMI ® (Morphing Mushroom Identifier) is a great example. It is described as an innovative identification tool which models your fungus on screen as you enter the characters with automatic presentation of the most likely species. A more detailed version of MycoKey to install on your PC is also sold.
This category of mushroom identification apps perform identification based on a picture you take or upload. There have been apps before that have claimed to identify them from a photo alone, but experts have dismissed some as “potentially deadly“. You know that one random example of a particular mushroom species you encounter can differ from that wonderful specimen in a book . How young or old the specimen is, what the weather has been doing – washing out colours etc. all means this is a big ask.
A new web site / app takes mushroom photo recognition to a new level. In this blog post we try it out. Overall, I am very impressed. Yes, it needs to be used with caution and a good level of knowledge and use of several books is still wise. Might we make those numerous forum posts / emails – “I picked this, can I eat it?” a thing of the past? For more on mushroom identification look at this previous blog post of ours.
New Danish Website and App
This Danish website’s new tool and related app uses automated picture recognition and artificial intelligence (AI). It was trained on images from the excellent Danish Fungal Atlas. The system has been developed by Milan Šulc og Professor Jiri Matas from Czech Technical University in Prague (CTU), Lukáš Picek from University of West Bohemia (UWB) and the Danish Fungal Atlas. The latter group includes the respected Danish fungi authors of an amazing set of fungi books I am contemplating (Fungi of Temperate Europe (2-Volume Set) usually £94.99!).
The authors strongly warn that you should “be extra critical and always consult a good mushroom book”, warning:
Warning: Never eat a mushroom because the system indicates you have found an edible fungus. Always seek advice from experts if you are not experienced yourself.
Note that the system should be used with great care, and not as tool to identify edible fungi without involving knowledgeable humans with experience in fungal recognition.So please explore with curiosity and sanity.
If users do follow the advice then great, I am concerned that they all won’t.
I installed and had a quick play with the Android version of the app (Danmarks svampeatlas). It has plenty of disclaimers about not eating them based on the identification. As expected, you take a photo and it gives you suggestions. You can then drill-down into each to see photos and description. At the time of writing it is still partly in Danish including the species names.
Upload a photo and it gives you suggestions. The species names are English, though not always the same common name as we widely use in the UK. You can drill down for their photo and details but that is in Danish, but along side several fungi books it’s very useable.
I did some tests with some of my many mushroom photos, edible, poisonous and non-edible species. Most identifications were correct (first species suggested) but of course will depend upon your photos / specimen:
Parasol (photo from underneath!)
Field mushroom (picked specimen on its side)
Scarlet Elf Cups
Stinkhorn (even though the top was covered in flies!)
Correct to Genus (Group)
Holly Parachute Mushroom
Wrong Species and Genus
Sandy stilt puffball
I did try and push it a bit further (it’s a bit addictive!) and interestingly:
An icing Fly Agaric of my 50th birthday cake was correctly identified!
It identified Hedgehog mushrooms in a basket of them and Autumn Chanterelle (they were in separate groups).
Unsurprisingly, it failed on a very mixed basket.
This app can identify SOME fungi species correctly, but:
DO NOT rely solely on an app to tell you what a mushroom is.
DO NOT eat a mushroom based on what an app says alone.
Mushroom poisoning can be life-threatening. If someone has eaten a poisonous mushroom (or plant), don’t try to treat them yourself – seek medical help immediately.
If someone has accidentally consumed poisonous mushroom, please see this information at the end of the blog post.
Disclaimer. I do not have a medical background so this blog post is purely for information and should not be relied on to decide if you require treatment or not.
This is written from a UK perspective and ignores poisonous species not found in the UK. It does not give detailed identification information.
When I tell people that I pick and eat wild mushrooms, the usual reaction is to tell me that I'm brave. This fear of mushrooms, “mycophobia” is prevalent among British, the main concern being some mushrooms are poisonous if eaten. Mushroom poisoning means harmful consequences from consuming toxic substances present in some. Let’s put some perspective on this:
Globally, of 100,000 known fungi species about 100 are thought to be poisonous to humans.
In the UK, we have about 4500 species. Of these, about 200 are edible, 50 poisonous and the rest are inedible or tasteless.
Most mushroom poisonings are not fatal.
Fatalities are extremely rare, the most recent deaths from mushroom poisoning in Britain were in 2012 and 2008.
You will not be ill from touching a poisonous species. Don’t put your fingers in your mouth, nose, eyes etc and wash them before eating anything.
There are mainly five explanations as to why people get mushroom poisoning:
Misidentification – confusing a toxic mushroom with an edible species. Usually this is due to mistakenly eating a “look-a-like” with a similar appearance or a lack of knowledge
Consuming certain species while uncooked or undercooked.
Young children accidentally ingesting mushrooms while crawling on a lawn.
Individuals attempting suicide or homicide.
Individuals looking for a hallucinatory high.
In this post we concentrate on the first two reasons and help foragers avoid mushroom poisoning. We don’t want to put you off. By limiting yourself to species you can identify with confidence, eating picking and wild mushrooms is safer than walking down the road. Mushroom hunting is one of the greatest pleasures the countryside offers. The fact that many are poisonous, in my view, adds to, rather than detracts from the fun!
Avoiding Mushroom Poisoning
NEVER eat any fungus if you are not absolutely sure of its name and you know that it is safe to eat.
Familiarise yourself with the poisonous species such as the Death Cap and the Yellow Stainer.
Avoid picking young specimens, that have not developed fully, as they are more difficult to identify.
Stick to a selection of easy to recognise species that you feel confident about. Be aware of any possible “look-a-likes”.
All Amanitas - mushrooms with white gills, a swollen base or bag at the base of the stem and, usually, a large ring on the stem.
Any mushroom with brown spores.
Young mushrooms that are still at the “egg” stage. They are very difficult to identify. If eating Puffballs, cut them in half lengthwise. Young Puffballs in the edible stage have undifferentiated white flesh within; whereas the gills of immature Amanita mushrooms can be seen if they are closely examined.
In a bit more detail:
Unfamiliar Species: Check and re-check your identification, especially looking out for a similar poisonous species. If still in doubt, ask an expert or throw it away.
Examine each specimen. Always check each specimen in case a different species has got in amongst your collection of edible ones.
Keep your collections separate. Do not mix edible and non-edible species in your basket if you are collecting for the pot. It is a good idea if collecting for the pot to only collect edible species and not other species for identification purposes - the spores of some species can be deadly.
Check the spore print. A simple operation, leaving a cap on some paper and covering for an hour or so. This will help check your identification.
Do not eat raw wild fungi. Some wild fungi are poisonous if eaten raw, e.g. Morels (Morchella species) Wood Blewit (Clitocybe nuda), the Blusher, (Amanita rubescens) or species of Helvella. Always cook your collections. Heat destroys the toxins in these species, in the same way that it does for Kidney beans.
Retain an uncooked specimen. This is a very sensible idea. Keep one example of what you have eaten in the fridge. In case, you do poison yourself, this will help others identify what you have eaten and therefore know how to treat you. Different species contain different toxins; therefore, treatments will vary.
Only eat good specimens. Many poisoning cases occur when edible species are eaten in poor condition – decaying / dirt. Only eat good specimens - microscopic fungi and bacterial infection can occur in decaying mushrooms. Food poisoning can be caused by collecting old or partly rotten specimens, collecting in plastic bags or closed containers, or through spoilage by incorrect long-term storage.
Keep your collections in the fridge. This keeps your specimens in good condition.
Experimenting. If experimenting and eating a type for the first time, only eat a small amount. Different people react to fungi in different ways and it is safer to test your own body out gently! A classic cause of gastric upset is Chicken of The Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus). Roughly 9/10 people get on with it, but about 1 in 10 is ill from it.
Alcohol. Avoid drinking alcohol with species you haven't eaten before and with certain species, e.g. the Common Ink Cap (Coprinus atramentarius)
Fear. Do not feed wild mushrooms to people who don't want to eat them. Fear can make people sick.
Susceptible people. Do not serve wild fungi to young children, old or sick people. Their resistance to mushroom toxins may be lower.
Greed. Do not eat large quantities of wild mushrooms in one sitting. This alone can make you sick.
Source: How to avoid mushroom poisoning (adapted from Shelley Evans' guidelines in Guides for the Amateur Mycologist - No.4 Guide for the Kitchen Collector: Preservation and Cooking of Fungi. British Mycological Society, 1994)
Types of Mushroom Poisoning
Each poisonous mushroom species contains one or more toxins, which may be classified based on the mushroom’s physiologic and clinical effects in humans, the target organ toxicity, and the time to symptom onset. The clinical spectrum and toxicity vary with the following factors:
Individual response to the toxins
A. Rapid Onset Mushroom Poisoning
With this category, symptoms appear within 6 hours of eating a mushroom. These are usually are not life-threatening; they may last a few hours, occasionally a few days. There are five basic types of rapid-onset mushroom poisonings.
Species involved: Various
The most common type of rapid onset mushroom poisoning is usually gastrointestinal upset - vomiting and diarrhoea. Typically, there is no long-term damage. It is recommended that medical assistance should still be sought if this type of poisoning is suspected particularly in the case of children.
These mushrooms contain the toxin coprine, which causes an Antabuse-like reaction. Antabuse is a drug given to alcoholics to make them sick if they drink alcohol. Symptoms begin within minutes of ingesting alcohol (including medications) up to 5 days after eating the mushroom.
The toxic substance is muscarine. Symptoms may include sweating, dizziness, muscle twitching, confusion, coma and occasionally seizures. With treatment nearly all people recover in 24 hours. Without treatment, death can occur in a few hours with severe poisoning. One fatality was recorded in Surrey in 1937.
Symptoms are delusions, euphoria or anxiety, altered space and time, and occasionally seizures, especially in children. These symptoms go away without treatment, and serious consequences are rare, so specific treatment is usually not needed.
They may be eaten intentionally or accidentally by humans and pets and should be suspected whenever the victim is described as "acting drunk”. The toxins are ibotenic acid/muscimol. Symptoms may include apparent intoxication, in-coordination, hyperactivity, muscle spasms, collapse, anxiety, visions, and finally, a coma-like sleep. Fly Agaric has been used ritually for thousands of years as an inebriant.
B. Delayed Onset Mushroom Poisoning
These are life-threatening, late-onset poisonings, where symptoms appear over 6 hours after ingestion. The results are organ failure potentially resulting in death. Serious symptoms do not always occur immediately after eating, often not until the toxin attacks the kidney or liver, sometimes days or weeks later. The types are based on the symptoms resulting from the toxin in the mushrooms consumed.
The toxins involved are amatoxins. The first two species listed below are both members of the Amanita genus. While there are some edible members of this genus, our advice for beginners is to avoid them all. Another point is that young specimens of Amanitas at an immature or “egg” stage look completely different and are easy to confuse with other species. With the stem not developed and no cap yet, the mushroom is still entirely encased in their universal veil and you won’t be able to identify them with any confidence.
The Death Cap is the most dangerous and poisonous mushroom, responsible for 90–95% of fatal mushroom poisonings globally. Just one mushroom is likely to contain enough toxins to kill an average adult human. The toxins are not destroyed by cooking, boiling, soaking, or drying. It is widely distributed in Europe and has spread to Australia, Asia, Southern Africa, and the Americas on the roots of imported trees. I see it in the UK about 3 or 4 times each year. It is reported as being palatable (tasty).
There is no complete antidote for Death Cap mushroom poisoning – survival depends on early diagnosis and treatment. Vomiting and diarrhoea start in 6 to 12 hours. Sometimes the blood sugar level drops dangerously low. Symptoms subside for a few days, but then people develop liver failure and sometimes kidney failure. Liver failure causes the skin to turn yellow (jaundice). People with kidney failure may have reduced urination or may have stopped urinating. Sometimes the symptoms disappear on their own, but about half of the people who have this type of poisoning die in 5 to 8 days. People with liver failure may survive if given a liver transplant. IN 2018, a lady in Essex was hospitalised after eating Death Caps. She survived.
The toxin involved is orellanine. Vomiting and diarrhoea may last for 3 days. Kidney failure, with symptoms of flank pain and a decreased amount of urine, may occur 3 to 20 days after the mushrooms are eaten. Kidney failure often resolves spontaneously.
In the UK, there are cases of these being accidentally consumed leading to kidney failure including holiday makers in Scotland in 1972 as well as Nicholas Evans, author of The Horse Whisperer, his wife and two other relatives. Evans had assumed they were Ceps but overlooked that the mushrooms had gills rather than pores. All four victims were informed that they would require kidney transplants in the future. Several years later, Evans received a kidney donated by his daughter. The other three eventually received transplants after some searching for donors, despite Charlotte having only eaten three mouthfuls of mushroom.
What to do in the case of accidentally consuming a poisonous mushroom
Call NHS 111 for advice if a person who’s been poisoned doesn’t appear to be seriously ill.
Helping someone who’s conscious
If you think someone has been severely poisoned and they’re still conscious, ask them to sit still and stay with them while you wait for medical help to arrive.
If they’ve been poisoned by eating a mushroom, try to get them to spit out anything that is remaining in their mouth.
Helping someone who is unconscious
If you think someone has eaten a poisonous mushroom and they appear to be unconscious, try to wake them and encourage them to spit out anything left in their mouth. Don’t put your hand into their mouth and don’t try to make them sick.
While you’re waiting for medical help to arrive, lie the person on their side with a cushion behind their back and their upper leg pulled slightly forward, so they don’t fall on their face or roll backwards. This is known as the recovery position.
Wipe any vomit away from their mouth and keep their head pointing down, to allow any vomit to escape without them breathing it in or swallowing it. Don’t give them anything to eat or drink.
Medical staff will need to take a detailed history to effectively treat a person who’s been poisoned. When the paramedics arrive or when you arrive at A&E, give them as much information as you can, including:
What mushroom you think the person may have eaten.
When the mushroom was eaten (how long ago)?
If it was cooked.
How much was eaten (if you know)?
Any alcohol consumed?
Had the patient consumed this mushroom before?
Is a specimen of the mushroom available?
Is a photograph of the mushroom available?
How long after ingestion did symptoms begin?
Details of any symptoms the person has had, such as whether they’ve been sick.
Take a sample of the mushroom and photographs with you for accurate identification. If there is any of the food left over take a sample of that too.
Medical staff may also want to know:
the person’s age and estimated weight
whether they have any existing medical conditions
whether they’re taking any medication (if you know)
The below great quote on mushroom identification is saying that there is no easy way of telling poisonous from edible species.
“A toadstool has a cap and a stem and you can’t eat it; a mushroom has a cap and a stem and you can”.
If you want to pick and eat wild mushrooms, the way to avoid risk is to learn the physical features of each species. If globally, people that pick and eat mushrooms recognised 10 of the most poisonous mushrooms, the incidences of mushroom poisoning would decrease dramatically.
In the UK there are c. 4500 species of mushroom. Even experts can have difficulty identifying some species. For some complicated ones, identification of spores under microscopes or the use of chemical reagents are required. However, with the right approach and some practice, even without such techniques, you should be able to identify a good number of species of fungi.
1. Dangerous Myths
The first lesson is that there are no shortcuts to identifying a mushroom. There are lots of old wives’ tales and myths about safe eating of mushrooms. They are all misleading and dangerous.
I saw a slug / squirrel / deer / rabbit eating it so it must be safe. False
If the cap can be peeled it is safe to eat. False
Poisonous mushrooms turn a silver spoon / copper coin blue / black. False
If silver and copper coins boiled with them don’t change colour, they are safe to eat. False
All mushrooms growing on wood are edible.False
All mushrooms in meadows and pastures are safe to eat.False
All white mushrooms are safe.False
Poisonous mushrooms taste bad.False
2. Apps can be dangerous
Don’t rely on an app designed to identify mushrooms in the wild using just a smartphone photo. A recent newspaper headline read “Experts Call This Mushroom-Identifying App ‘Potentially Deadly‘”. There are some mushroom apps that are helpful however, see below.
Mushroom books are great, I have quite a few and could happily buy many more. You can see some of our favourites here. They should be taken outdoors with you to use and not just left on the shelf. Yes, they’ll get wet or dirty, but they are invaluable in the field for correct mushroom identification. However, they need to be used correctly, justthumbing through pictures in a book is unlikely to work.
4. The correct process of mushroom identification
There are 4 stages to identify an unknown mushroom – observation, examination, using a key and finally, checking the answer.
You start WITHOUT YOUR BOOKS / APP – with observation about the surroundings of the fungus you are trying to identify:
What sort of habitat are you in?
What species are the nearest trees?
How it is growing? in rings? Singly? in clusters?
What is it growing on? Wood (if so what type of tree)? the ground? Dung? Other fungi? Woodchip?
Examine the specimen studying as many fine details as you can think of. Look at specimens in at least two stages of development. This is because they can vary in colour and shape depending on the stage of growth and maturity. The weather will make a difference too; rain will wash-out the colours and make a normally dry cap wet or sticky.
Always gently lever unknown mushrooms out of the ground and handle them with care. This will preserve important characters for identification.
This image shows some of the different structures found under the cap, gill attachment options and cap shapes.
The cap – size, colour, shape (see above image), stickiness, scales etc.
What is under the cap? (see above image) gills, pores or spines/teeth
If it has gills, are they crowded or closely spaced ? (see above image) Are they attached to the stem or free? Do they run down the stem (decurrent)? etc.
Is there a ring on the stem? what is it like?
What is the stem like? Thickness, flexibility etc.
What is the base of the stem like?
Is there a colour change on cutting or bruising?
Does it have a smell?
What colour are the spores? In the field you may be able to determine this by seeing where they have dropped onto the cap of another specimen or on the grass / leaf / log below. Often, but not always, the spores are the same colour as the gills. The ideal approach for a definitive answer is to take it home to make a spore print.
Making a spore print
A spore print shows the colour of the spores of any given mushroom. To make one is very straightforward:
• Cut off the stem.
• Place the cap (gills downward) on a piece of paper.
• Leave the cap in place for a few hours.
There are many spore colours including white, cream, pink, purple, brown and black. If you wish to keep the spore print, you can "fix" them with spray glue or hairspray or laminate them.
c. Use a key to find out what it is
Keys are an easy to use, valuable tool that are not just used for mushrooms but also for wider species identification (plants, dragonflies, shells etc). The standard approach is to ask questions based on easily identifiable features. Dichotomous keys use questions to which there are only two answers. For example, “Is the cap bigger than 5 cm?”. The key can be presented as a table of questions, or as a branching tree of questions with one answer leading you to the next question. They will include some technical terms but the book will have a glossary to explain them. Some keys will get you to species level, others to the genus. Here is an a short extract from MushroomExpert.Com’s Key to Major Groups of Mushrooms
Answer / Go to question
Mushroom growing on other mushrooms or the decayed remains of other mushrooms.
Mushroom not growing on other mushrooms.
Mushroom with gills on its underside.
Growing shelflike on wood (or, if not, then gills concentric rather than radial); mushroom very tough and leathery, corky, or woody (try tearing it in half); gills tough and hard, sometimes maze-like; cap frequently (but not always) with concentric zones of colour.
Not completely as above.
Another key approach is a visual one. The MycoKey MMI ® (Morphing Mushroom Identifier) is a great example. It is described as an innovative identification tool which models your fungus on screen as you enter the characters with automatic presentation of the most likely species. A more detailed version of MycoKey to install on your PC is also sold.
Most mushroom books have a key, people are often unaware that they are in the book or haven’t used them. There are some good App keys too, some being a computerised version of a book’s key. Note that any key will only include the species in that book, not all that you may encounter. For example, one popular mushroom book contains about 100 species of the 4500 or so found in the UK.
Identifying mushrooms can be difficult; individuals of the same species will vary with age and the weather, but a key makes the task a lot easier, far better than flicking though the pictures looking for one that looks right. Give them a go. We teach using keys on our courses and attendees soon get the hang of them, identifying many examples we find.
If you followed a key you would have worked out the the mushrooms shown in the observation and examination sections of this post is a Parasol Mushroom (Macrolepiota procera). MycoKey gives a number of possibilities and ranks how well they fit. You can then “drill-down” to read more about each suggestion.
d. Check the answer
Check the species that the key has led you to in as many books as you can. Use the pictures and the descriptions. Is every detail correct? Make sure that the descriptions, seasons, preferred habitats and the photographs all agree with each other. If it says only found in the Spring and it is Autumn, you are wrong. Similarly, if it says only found with Oak and you are in an area of just Pine trees, again you are wrong. They may mention “lookalike” species which are worth checking. An Internet search may help in finding more pictures – though there is no guarantee that any picture online is correctly labelled – I am aware of serious errors on reputable web sites!
If the answer given by your key is not like the mushroom your are trying to identify, revisit your key answers in particular any subjective answers like “small”, “bendy” or “sticky”.
One of my “go to” web sites for checking fungi identifications is First Nature. If you look at the entry there for Parasol Mushroom you can check the details of our identification.
It was very saddening to read a recent newspaper report of the deliberate taking of the rare Bearded Tooth (formerly Lion’s Mane) fungus from three locations in The New Forest. This is one of four species of protected fungi listed under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act as they are endangered. Most offences are punishable on summary conviction by six month’s imprisonment and/or a fine.
According to the newspaper article (not available online), they were taken by “unlicensed foragers”. There is only one licensed forager in The New Forest (it’s a long story!). Collecting wild fungi for commercial purposes requires landowners’ consent, without it such collection is theft (1969 Theft Act). The Forestry Commission in The New Forest do not give consent for commercial collection and their fungi picking campaigns of the last few years are aimed at commercial collectors (though this is not at all clear from their signage). Whoever took it you have not done any favours for legitimate people foraging for personal consumption. You are not representative of the rest of us, like football hooligans, a small minority may well tarnish the reputation of the law abiding majority. The Police, Natural England and The Forestry Commission are investigating the thefts. Anyone with information is encouraged to share it with the police via 101 or The Forestry Commission (South England Office).
I have seen Bearded Tooth only on one occasion knowing immediately what it was and whooped for joy at being so fortunate to see it. It is a stunning species looking like melted wax cascading out of a fallen tree. Only photos and memories were taken.
With a mycologist friend I returned to that spot this year and there was no sign of it. Poor memory was blamed for forgetting the exact location but I now wonder of this was one of the spots where it had been taken.
The name refers to the Lion’s Mane Jellyfish and not the big cat. The species is edible – “a superb seafood-like taste compared to crab or lobster” but clearly should not be eaten from the wild. If you are keen to try it, it can be cultivated so you can buy it in Asian grocery stores, online and occasionally in supermarkets. Alternatively, your can try to grow your own with plug spawn. It is also sold as powders, supplements and extracts from some health food shops being revered by Native Americans and East Asian cultures where it is traditionally known as an immune booster, memory booster and styptic (stems flow of blood).
As a member of The Association of Foragers, I have been active making sure our legal right to pick wild fungi for personal consumption is allowed to continue. As Hedgerow Harvest, I organise educational fungus forays and walks in The New Forest and pay for a permit from The Forestry Commission to run them. The events are undertaken following strict rules as to what and how much we can pick and as well as teaching identification and safety do emphasise sustainable and legal picking. We are privileged, The New Forest is one of the best places for fungi in Western Europe and is home to rare and protected species as well as good numbers of much more common species.
It may be that this illegal picking was ignorance of the law rather than deliberate targeting. Some fungi books list Lion’s Mane as “edible” without mentioning the legal status, however, such “ignorance of law excuses no one”. To try and educate people I have tried to put together a guide to protected fungi species. To read the interesting background to these lists (e.g. the politics), Peter Marren’s excellent book Mushrooms is highly recommended. (According to a review in The independent it is “The greatest book about mushrooms you’ll ever read”).
Under the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 it is an offence to pick, uproot or destroy any wild plant listed. “Wild plant” means any plant (including fungi) which is or (before it was picked, uprooted or destroyed) was growing wild and is of a kind which ordinarily grows in Great Britain in a wild state. This means that picking these critically endangered species is strictly forbidden. Most offences are punishable on summary conviction by six month’s imprisonment and/or a fine. The four species of protected fungi listed are:
Royal bolete is known mainly from grassy areas under broadleaved trees in ancient, deciduous woods, particularly hornbeam or beech woods but also oak, on calcareous or acidic sandy soils. It is an ectomycorrhizal species which depends on old host trees. Many of its known host trees are old oak pollards. It has attractive, edible fruiting bodies which generally appear between May and September, although it is not known how reliable its fruiting is. The fruiting bodies are reddish in colour with a cap 6-15 cm in diameter.
In Britain, this species is only known from southern England. There is very little information on its historic distribution in Britain. It may always have been rare, but some experts suggest that it may have declined over the last 40 years. In recent years, it has only been seen at three sites: the New Forest, Ashgreen (Surrey) and Windsor Forest. Elsewhere, this species has been recorded in scattered locations across central Europe.
Hericium erinaceum grows mainly on the wounds of old living trees and on the ends of felled trunks in deciduous woods. It often grows high up on its host trees which are usually beech, but may also be oak. This species has an extremely local distribution in Britain, possibly because it is restricted to areas of woodland where there has been a long continuity of old trees. Fruiting bodies appear in late summer to autumn. Techniques are available for cultivating this edible species, and it is now being sold in supermarkets as a fashionable addition to cuisine.
This species is scattered but locally common in southern England, rare in the Midlands (only one record from Herefordshire) and is absent from other parts of the British Isles. There are 12 records from approximately seven sites since 1960. Recent records include sites in the New Forest, Windsor Great Park and Oxfordshire.
This species causes brown rot in mature oaks or on recently dead oaks, but never on any other species. It mainly occurs in wood pasture habitat where there has been a continuity of mature oak trees. The fruiting bodies which are edible, but have a very bitter taste, generally appear between May and December.
In Britain, this species has been recorded at Sherwood Forest and from approximately five other sites in Derbyshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Oxfordshire and Herefordshire. There is no evidence for a historic decline in this species.
In response to International moves to help reduce or halt the significant losses in global biodiversity, the UK, like many other countries, has summarised the most threatened or rapidly declining habitats and species and created detailed “Species Action Plans” for their conservation. As well as priority habitats, action plans have been created for birds, plants, fish, fungi and other groups. Following devolution there are now priority lists for England, Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland.
UK BAP priority fungi species
Note that lichens have been omitted. Includes rusts and smuts etc. U = unknown
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species (also known as the IUCN Red List or Red Data List), founded in 1965, has evolved to become the world’s most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of biological species. It uses a set of criteria to evaluate the extinction risk of thousands of species and subspecies. These criteria are relevant to all species and all regions of the world. With its strong scientific base, the IUCN Red List is recognized as the most authoritative guide to the status of biological diversity. A series of Regional Red Lists are produced by countries or organizations, which assess the risk of extinction to species within a political management unit.
A Red Data List of Threatened British Fungi was produced in 1992 and 2006 by the British Mycological Society (BMS). However, neither of these achieved official approval by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, thereby diminishing their effectiveness in conservation decision-making.
Preliminary Assessment: The Red Data List of Threatened British Fungi – 2006
To remedy this, the family Boletaceae (Boletes) was chosen in 2012 to establish a template for fungal conservation status assessments. The aim was to facilitate production of British Red Data Lists conforming to international standards set by the IUCN and published by JNCC.
Working with Natural England, the Association of British Fungus Groups and the British Mycological Society and a team at Cardiff University, Kew mycologists produced this first official (pilot) fungal Red Data List for Great Britain, which was duly published by JNCC in 2013. Of the 68 Boletes studied, 13 were assessed as threatened and 37 are now ‘red-listed’. Even now, in late 2018, no further families have been added.
Red List of Fungi for Great Britain: Boletaceae. A pilot conservation assessment based on national database records, fruit body morphology and DNA barcoding - 2013.
As I write this in late November you could be forgiven for thinking that most foraging opportunities are finished for the year but this is far from the truth. There are still some wild greens and fruit about and while most fungi finds are slowing up, with a frost or two already past, it becomes time to hunt for Wood Blewits. They can be found from September to January or February. While not as well known as other “top table” fungi like Ceps and Chanterelles, these are right up there for flavour and versatility and used to be sold in markets in this country.
Many woodland fungi are mycorrhizal. This means that the mycelium (underground web of fibres making up the majority of the body of the fungus) grows on the roots of trees. It takes up water and nutrients to pass to the tree in exchange for sugars. Wood Blewits are saprophytes. They feed on dead or decaying organic matter such as leaf litter. The name suggests that they are only found in woodland, however, some of the best places I know are nice, old (unimproved) grasslands, including along the coast where agriculture is often less intense. Here they can be found growing in huge rings. They are also found under hedgerows (linear woodlands), in gardens (including mine occasionally!) and on road verges.
We strongly recommend you check identification with several books.
Wood Blewits are violet when young but become light brown / tan with age. I could identify one blind-folded due to their distinctive smell, described as floral, aromatic, sweet, perfumed or best of all, “frozen orange juice” according to one source!
You need to be very careful that you do not confuse them with some of the larger purple species of Cortinarius fungi which can be of a similar colour. The Wood Blewit has pink spores and all Cortinarius fungi have rusty brown spores. A spore print will confirm their colour.
The genus name Cortinarius means “curtained”. A young specimen will have a “cortina” between the cap and the stem. A cortina in this case, is not the United Kingdom’s best-selling car of the 1970s, but a “veil”, a web of threads between the mushroom stem and cap. Remnants of it may be seen on older specimens.
Another species that you will head off the path in pursuit of, thinking from a distance it is a Wood Blewit, is The Clouded Agaric. A closer inspection will reveal the lack of violet and the distinctive smell. As they make most people that eat them ill, you will soon learn to despise Clouded Agarics.
As Wood Blewits can be found in good numbers they can be preserved for later consumption. While drying is an option, I usually fry them and then put the cooked mushrooms into freezer bags and the freezer with the amount I would need for a meal in each bag.
Wood Blewits must be cooked before consumption. Raw they can cause indigestion or stomach upsets. A minority of people find even thoroughly cooked Wood Blewits indigestible so it is recommended you should try a small amount the first time that you eat them to check they like you.
They can often have a lot of water in them so when you cook them, you may need to drain off any surplus liquid so you fry them and not boil them. They are very good sautéed and served with a range of meats or poultry. They can be one of a number of mushrooms in a risotto or pasta dish.
One of my favourites, a Cauliflower fungus. Always found at the base of a coniferous tree. Compared to many mushrooms the preparation is hard work with woodlice, pine needles and leaf litter all found inside. Breaking into smaller pieces and washing under a running tap is the way to clean them. They have a lovely nutty flavour, the portion of this one that came home made a great curry.
I usually see Death Caps about 2 or 3 times each year. These are responsible for most mushroom deaths in Europe. It is a member of the Amanita genus with their characteristic ring and (not shown) the swollen base (Volva). Other family members include the Destroying Angel, Fly Agaric and Blusher. While one or two of the family can be eaten, the advice of many including me is to avoid all Amanitas. If you have any interest in eating mushrooms you should learn to recognise an Amanita. The Death Cap is found with a pretty wide range of trees including Oak, Beech, Birch and Pine. The toxic component damages the liver and kidneys and can be fatal.
I wished I smelt this at the time – it apparently smells of burnt rubber. “Edibility suspect – avoid”.
If this post interests you, we have some places available on our full day fungus forays and our 3-4 hour fungus walks in The New Forest (by kind permission of The Forestry Commission) in October.
Written in August 2017. The Forestry Commission's Q&A link no longer works but is kept for completeness.
As fungi have made an early appearance this year, some foragers thoughts have turned to The New Forest and what will happen there after the events of last year. All has become clear in the last week or so and I thought I would summarise what happened last year and give the current position.
Last year (2016)
I wrote last year about the situation then, firstly here after the initial announcements and then here when things clarified. In summary, The Forestry Commission introduced a “no-picking” code for the New Forest SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) covering most of The New Forest – open forest, heathland, timber inclosures etc.
“Due to the growing concern from conservationists and very real fears from members of the community in the New Forest about the wide-scale harvesting of fungi, Forestry Commission feels it necessary to adopt a precautionary approach and can no longer support fungi picking on any scale on the New Forest Crown Lands (Site of Special Scientific Interest).”
Posters appeared in the car parks:
The message was very clear as far as the public and most media were concerned there was a ban on mushroom picking in the New Forest. However, the Association of Foragers, Radio 4 and The Times pushed for facts and eventually the much needed real clarity was given by The Commission:
I’d like to reassure you that we are not seeking to prosecute individuals that are picking for themselves – it is not illegal. … Our main aim is to tackle commercial collection of fungi, which has always been prohibited – it is an offence under the Theft Act 1968 to do so without the permission of the landowner. .. also, in the case of persistent offenders, tools such as the Stop Notice may be issued.
There was no change to any laws or by-laws at all. However, the damage was done with fully legal permitted fungus forays being verbally abused and photographed by members of the public despite permits being shown. It is alleged that the Police were called to at least one incident.
This year (2017)
On 15th August the Forestry Commission (South England Forest District) distributed a news release:
More looking, no picking – protecting New Forest fungi
Autumn is usually the height of the growth cycle for mushrooms, but with the wet and warm weather we’ve experienced this August many fungi have already started to emerge. Fungi are essential to the New Forest ecosystem, so we are appealing to people to look, but please don’t pick.
The New Forest is a SSSI and an area of special beauty, highly designated for nature conservation. It is a stronghold for many rare species of fungi, some of which are yet to be identified. Protecting the New Forest’s world-renowned habitats and balancing the needs of visitors and nature is a complex mission.
The Deputy Surveyor for the Forestry Commission South District, Bruce Rothnie, said: “We want people to get out into the Forest to enjoy the signs of autumn, we just appeal to them not to pick fungi, respecting the natural environment of the New Forest and leaving fungi for everyone to admire.”
Certain fungi are edible and enjoyed by people, however, many aren’t palatable and several are poisonous. There are a wide range of approved educational forays on offer, where people can find out more about the incredible fungi that thrive here.
We are working with organisations and experts who can identify the characteristics of the huge varieties of fungi found in the New Forest and get more people interested and involved in the conservation of our rarest fungi.
Bruce added: “We’ve already approved a limited number of licensed educational foragers in the New Forest who can help interpret and raise awareness of the huge value of fungi. We continue to work with foragers to develop sustainable solutions for people to enjoy the benefits of foraging outside of the protected New Forest area.”
The campaign has the support of many local partners including; the New Forest National Park Authority, Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust and the National Trust.
Oliver Crosthwaite-Eyre, Chairman of the New Forest National Park Authority, said: “We are fully supportive of the Forestry Commission’s continuing work to stop fungi picking from the land that they manage in the New Forest. The New Forest Site of Special Scientific Interest is a stronghold for many rare and endangered species of fungi and it is important that we all do our bit to protect
them. By leaving fungi unpicked, we can all help conserve the Forest’s fragile ecosystem for everyone to appreciate.”
The Forestry Commission is not seeking to prosecute people that are picking small amounts of fungi for themselves (it is not illegal) we are appealing to people’s better nature and encouraging visitors to see the bigger picture. The aim is to prevent potential harm to the SSSI that is notified for its fungi.
You can support the Forestry Commission’s efforts by letting them know if you see any suspected commercial picking (which is an offence under the Theft Act 1968) by calling their 24 hour telephone line: 0300 067 4600.
There is more information on the above link and the related Q&A. This year’s posters and leaflets are changed:
Following the press release, an article appeared in The Bournemouth Echo calling for a complete ban on mushroom picking in The New Forest.
So, in summary, this year there is recognition that gathering small amounts of common fungi for personal consumption is legal (1968 Theft Act). Commercial collecting is, as it always has been, illegal and will be dealt with. Fungus forays and walks (such as ours), can continue to operate under permit and following strict guidelines. The Forest is a special place and one of the best places for fungi in Western Europe; there are rare species of fungi, protected by law and they should not be picked or damaged. The Forestry Commission are asking you to look and not pick.
The fungi season has arrived a bit earlier than some years thanks to the combination of hot, dry weather in late June (it seems a long time ago) and then the cooler, wet weather since the kids broke up for the summer. On Friday, I wrote in a Hedgerow Harvest Facebook post:
If you you’re a fungi fan change your plans for the weekend and head for your favourite fungi spots. The combination of really hot weather then lots of wet days means the fungi are going crazy. Where I live we have lots of grass fields and I am picking Field Mushrooms, Fairy Ring Champignon and Scarlet Waxcaps. The fungi forums are buzzing with photos of good quantities and a wide range of species of both grassland (Parasols and Giant Puffballs) and woodland (Chanterelles, Ceps, Horn of Plenty, Chicken of The Woods, Amethyst Deceivers, False Saffron Milkcaps and many more). Of course, it’s not just the good species that are about, I’ve seen photos of some of the Amanita’s including the deadly Destroying Angel.
On Friday evening, we took the dogs for a local walk. In the grasslands we found Parasols a plenty, some visible from a few hundred metres away! In the woods we found good numbers of Chanterelles and Hedgehogs but all far to small to pick. Being the beginning of the season we had good revision lessons with a possible gone over Death Cap, Brown Roll Rim, various Brittlegills and Porcelain fungus.
On Saturday, we stayed in West Dorset but went a little further a field, finding many of the above and one tree “covered” in Oyster mushrooms, some very small Ceps (too small again), a Bay Bolete, a Red-Cracked Bolete and some Deceivers.
We couldn’t resit the call of the New Forest and headed there yesterday for a lovely walk through the open forest, heather-clad heathlands and wooded inclosures. Our first find was, at first glance, a lovely group of Ceps, but closer inspection revealed them to be the quite similar looking, Bitter Bolete. One of these in a pan will spoil all the “good stuff” so worth recognising! We soon met a couple with some nice “real” Ceps and a Scarletina Bolete. Encouraged, we soon found our first “real” one, some Chanterelles (a few pickable but “hundreds” too small), a few small Hedgehog Mushrooms, Blushers, Tawny Grisettes, Oak Milkcaps, Brown Birch Boletes, a Chicken of The Woods and many Common Yellow Brittlegills. The real find of the day was not an edible but a beech stump with a large number of pristine Lacquered Brackets. I think, there are only 307 records for these for the UK!
When we thought we had finished for the day, nearly back at the car, we found an area with lots of Ceps, many kicked over, we took a few. Finally, we got the wiff of a Stinkhorn and soon followed it to it’s source.
When you thought it was all over, this morning’s dog walk found the local Field Mushrooms have moved on to be replaced by one of my favourite’s – Horse Mushrooms.
We’ve had mushrooms as a side dish, a wonderful Risotto and there are Ceps to get in the dehydrator this afternoon. I’m looking forward to Battered parasols dipped in garlic mayo too!
There is a growing trend for foraging apps but this one is just down right dangerous. However, a few are good. In Denmark, a recent one is a comprehensive and free resource for the public to learn about and sustainably explore wild food. The initiative comprises an app in Danish and in English, a website, a curriculum for Danish schools, and foraging workshops offered by fifty rangers (“naturvejledere”) across Denmark.
Roger Phillips is one of the world’s leading mushroom specialists with over 40 years’ of expertise of studying fungi in the wild. His excellent book ‘Mushrooms’, has sold more than 2 million copies worldwide. You can get an app version of the book[sadly no longer available], but rather getting the app to tell you what the mushroom is, you are lead through an electronic version of the key from the book. Lots of mushroom books have these, people are often unaware that they are in the book or haven’t used them. They are easy to use and a really valuable tool – give them a go.
Keys are not just used for identifying mushrooms but also for wider species identification. They usually ask questions based on easily identifiable features. Dichotomous keys use questions to which there are only two answers. They can be presented as a table of questions, or as a branching tree of questions with one questions answer leading you to the next. Here is an example, okay not mushrooms, but it shows the principle.
On our mushrooms day courses and walks we teach guests how to use keys. In fact, everyone who attends takes a turn at leading an identification. You start WITHOUT YOUR BOOKS / APP – with observation about the surroundings – habitat, trees etc., then examination of the specimen – cap, spores (including colour), gills, / tubes (pores) / spines, ring, stem, colour changes, smell etc. Then you use your key, before checking the answer with pictures or descriptions in several other sources too. Does it all agree? Note you shouldn’t trust every mushroom photo caption on the web as accurate!
Yes, identifying mushrooms can be difficult. Individuals of the same species will vary with age and the weather, but a key makes the task a lot easier, far better than flicking though the pictures looking for one that looks right. Give them a go.