Our foray into the hidden kingdom of fungi with expert Dr. Christian Taylor

Dr. Christian Taylor came to Lower Sharpham Farm to find a bunch of hopeless students that would have probably picked a good looking/cute but poisonous and deadly mushroom for dinner. We had everything to discover from the kingdom of fungi, since the knowledge of mushrooms has sadly not been passed on from our ancestors, as would have been in the past

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First of all we had the opportunity to look at some mushroom models to get familiar with the characteristics. We appreciated that he introduced the Amanita family at the beginning, which is a mushroom group that we know to avoid now, as 14 out of 15 of them are toxic and some even deadly. Fortunately, there are enough mushrooms out there that are not only harmless / edible but also delicious. To be honest, we found that at first all of us were especially interested in this workshop because of this. If not delicious, they probably have medicinal properties. For instance, you can use some mushrooms as a tea that will boost your immune system. Dr. Taylor even mentioned that they are currently being used for cancer research and used by some as a supplement for their chemotherapy (Reishi). If you want to learn more, you can find the book “How mushrooms can change the world” written by Paul Stamets.

One thing we learned for sure is that no mushroom is boring. This can already be seen by their names, which can be quite funny (King Arthurs cake, Candle snuff). They also come in weird shapes and sizes, ranging from coral reef style, cabbage, ears and rugby balls (congratulations South Africa!).

Here are some crazy facts….They are most likely the first organisms on earth. Did you know that fungi were used in the past to transport fires (Fomes fomentarius)? Or did you know that there are ascomycetic fungi that shoot spores into the stratosphere and can spread into new continents even including Antarctica? Also, fungi don’t have a defined life cycle, so they could live forever if they continuously and successfully reproduce.

Fungi spend most of their life cycle invisible to the human eye. The stage we are most familiar with, the fruiting body, may only last a couple of weeks or even days. Prior to that, the mycelium could have been growing underground for up to 50 years.

The largest organism in the world is the world is the Honey fungus, one specimen in the US recorded to have spanned over an area of around 30 kilometres underground. It acts as a natural selector, killing off only the weakest or oldest trees in the forest (so they are practically our forest managers). Not only is its name sweet, but it also has a nice fragrant smell, that will guide you to pick the most pleasant Honey fungus.

Pertaining to the farm’s core values of farming with a low damaging impact on the local ecosystem, our short mushroom walk showed, that the range of species found were a good indicator that this is working. This was widely possible due to the enlightened forest management technique of leaving deadwood in-situ.

After our walk we came home with a basket full of edible and hopefully mouth-watering mushrooms. Interesting things we found include some puffballs and wood ears. If you want to want to do your own mushroom and foraging walk, you can find many recipes and tips in “Wild Food – A complete guide for foragers” by Roger Phillips. Maybe there is some wild treasures to you closer than you think – they might be where you least expect them.

Here are some things that we learned that might be interesting for you:

  • Pick only half of the mushrooms you see when you collect mushrooms – be aware of your ecological impact and that mushrooms need time to regenerate
  • Never eat a mushroom that is still in the button phase, because it is difficult to identify them properly
  • Don’t cut the mushroom off with a knife as even looking down at the base is helpful for the identification
  • Don’t wash edible mushrooms (they suck up water like a sponge). Brushing insects and soil off will be enough
  • Leaving dead wood upright has more benefits for the ecosystem than if laid down
  • Be aware that the white parts of toxic mushrooms like the fly aminata (Amanita muscaria) can fall off due to rain – always check all the characteristics twice
  • It is best to carry back the mushrooms in a rigid container (no plastic bag)

Without a doubt, Dr. Taylors evident passion for the kingdom of fungi was passed on to us all. It is clear now, that part of our future work in biological conservation will include keeping the precious and vital fungi kingdom intact.