Friday, September 10, 2010

Gastric Russian Roulette?

Mild wet weather has produced plenty of toadstools that I can use to test a recently-purchased copy of Paul Sterry and Barry Hughes' excellent Collins Guide to British Mushrooms and Toadstools. First up was this fine specimen of what I'm pretty sure is a shaggy parasol, which now goes under the name of Chlorophyllum rhacodes. An awful lot of names have changed since I last took a serious interest in toadstools; last time I looked it was Lepiota rhacodes.

It was growing in a oak woodland on the outskirts of Durham city. From this low angle you can see the double ring under the cap and the smooth stem that lacks the scales of the true parasol mushroom, Macrolepiota procera. Both species are edible and the true parasol is said to be excellent, but apparently shaggy parasols cause stomach upsets in some people.There's a surprising number of smaller parasol-related species, collectively known as dapperlings, of variable edibility, including one - Lepiota brunneo-incarnata that's deadly poisonous and contains the same toxin as death cap so, as with all toadstool eating, accurate identification is essential.

I'd always assumed that the brightly coloured Russula species were at best inedible and most likely poisonous but this one, the ochre brittlegill Russula ochroleuca is described as being edible in one of my older field guides - but it is very similar to other much less palatable brittlegill species - and therein lies the problem for the novice mycophage like me. How can you be certain that you're not playing Russian roulette with your gastric system when you venture into the world of toadstool eating? Even some of the supposedly edible species can be treacherously upsetting to some sensitive individuals.

Fortunately the Collins Guide is very good for identification and there's another - John Wright's Mushrooms in the River Cottage Handbook series - that provides and excellent and entertaining guide on what to eat and what to admire from a distance. He has some wonderfully lurid descriptions of the effects of poisonous species, that underline the old adage that 'if you're not certain what it is, don't eat it'

Wright is the most recent in a long line of mycologists advocating the pleasures and benefits of eating wild fungi. I have a fascinating copy of the second edition of a book published in 1847 by Charles David Badham M.D. entitled A Treatise on the Esculent Funguses of England containing an account of their Classical History, Uses, Characters, Development, Structure, Nutritious properties, Modes of cooking and Preserving etc., - all covered in 152 anecdote-filled pages and illustrated with 12 hand-coloured plates, of which one - showing a parasol mushroom - is reproduced below. Having travelled in Europe and seen fungus markets and the enthusiasm for eating wild toadstools in Italy, Badham became a passionate advocate of toadstools as food for the poor and described the purpose of his book as being "to furnish the labouring classes with wholesome nourishment and profitable occupation".

Badham had given up his profession as a doctor, perhaps wisely as he had once raised eyebrows by setting the irregular heartbeat of an ailing patient to music, and had taken holy orders, becoming much moved by the plight of those affected by the great potato famine of 1845-52. In his book he writes "In such rambles [you] will see, what I have this autumn (1847) myself witnessed, whole hundredweights of rich wholesome diet rotting under the trees; woods teeming with food and not one hand to gather it; and this, perhaps, in the midst of potato blight, poverty and all manner of privations, and public prayers against imminent famine". He was, of course, right: wild fungi can be a wonderful potential food source, provided you really know what you're eating.................. but I 'm still not absolutely sure about that yellow-capped Russula in the picture above. Dare I eat it? Maybe not......

 Badham died in 1857 and the manner of his death doesn't seem to be recorded but, given the vagueness of some of his descriptions in his book and the shortage of accurate illustrations, you can't help wondering.....

You can download a digital copy of his book here.

The plates in Badham's book only bear the name of the lithographer, not the artist who was Anna Maria Hussey, a notable mycologist in her own right and sister to the tutor to Charles Darwin's sons.


  1. Phil,I hope you did not eat that specimen. I enjoy reading your posts.

  2. Great posting Phil!! I'm currently seeing large numbers of fungi during my birding rambles, and have sometimes thought about trying to identify the edible ones (fungi, not birds!). However, I reckon I'm too old to learn a new subject - particularly when mistakes could be hazardous! I take consolation in having a mushroom farm close to me which specialises in growing exotic mushrooms, and supplies restaurants, etc. UK-wide. I can buy the exotic in their shop for the same sort of price that I can buy 'ordinary' mushrooms in Tesco!

  3. Hi lotusleaf, I'm not very adventurous when it comes to eating toadstools

  4. Hi Richard, apart from an oyster mushroom or two, which are quite common hereabouts in late summer, I have been brave enough to try anything except the occasional field mushroom, which I must say have a vastly superior flavour to the cultivated equivalent..

  5. Fascinating and excellent post Phil.
    Thankfully I'm not a mushroom eater, so I'll not be falling victim to misidentification lol
    Love the low angle of the second picture.

  6. Hi lotusleaf, I'm a coward when it comes to experimenting with edible fungi..

  7. Hi Keith, I find my little pocket camera is ideal for these low angle shots - you can just rest it on the ground under the toadstool

  8. Hi.
    I have a small outcrop of 4 or 5 Shaggy Parasol toadstools, the largest 6 inches in diameter, in a corner of my New Forest garden.
    Your website and excellent photos were perfect in helping me to identify them.

  9. Hi Michael, delighted that the blog was of some help - lovely toadstools, aren't they?


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