A foray with fungi

These days we learn from a young age not to sample unfamiliar fungi from the verge or woodland unless we are in the presence of an expert or have a thorough knowledge of fungi species. For the somewhat more adventurous there are books and, if we are circumspect, official websites to consult to identify which mushrooms or toadstools are safe to consume.

Before modern-day scientific examination and poisons-testing were developed, knowledge of which fungi were safe to consume was passed on from person to person and generation to generation by word of mouth. How many people must have died or suffered excruciating pain and discomfort for the folklore of both safe and deadly fungi to develop?

Forensic archaeologists have identified prehistoric peoples who periodically relied heavily on fungi as part of their dietary needs. One example comes from around 19,000 years ago of a pre-Mesolithic community from Cantabria, northern Spain, at a time when the UK was still covered by a glacial ice sheet. The well-preserved remains of a 40-year-old woman, who was clearly of high status, revealed traces of fungi from a a dental examination of her teeth.

A much later discovery was a mummified Iceman named ‘Otzi’, dating from 5,300 years ago. He was so named as he was discovered in the Ötzal Alps on the present-day border between Italy and Austria. Alongside his body was found a well-preserved bag containing several mummified fungi. One example found has been identified as birch polypor: a bracket fungus which is still found in the UK. The theory developed by archaeologists is that this fungus was not used for food but as a medicine in the form of a laxative to expel worms!

Another bracket fungus identified was one with the colloquial name Ice-man Fungus which is again found on Birch and also Beech. It is more commonly known as Tinder fungus as it is known to have been used from this time for firelighting, though additional medicinal uses could have included treating cancers, bladder complaints and, intriguingly, even ingrowing toenails.

In ancient Egypt the appearance of mushrooms and toadstools was believed to be connected to the occurrence of lightning. Their association with thunderstorms were seen as being a gift from the god, Set, and those previously determined as edible, including the field mushroom, could only be consumed by the pharaoh. The veneration of such fungi can be confirmed by their appearance as drawings or carvings within burial tombs.

In a similar fashion the ancient Greeks believed mushrooms and toadstools were the result of ‘seeds’ dispersed by the god Zeus via his thunderbolts. It is clear from Aristotle, who recorded them as ‘agarikon’, that although not understanding how they appeared, he was the first to classify them as members of the Plant Kingdom. Thus, a scientific explanation to their origin had been put forward as an alternative theory to their longstanding mythical origin. Beliefs in thunderstorm origins is, in some cultures, still widespread.

Most fungi are hidden underground as a mycelium of thread-like filaments. Mushrooms and toadstools are the means by which fungi distribute their spores, known as fruiting bodies. This widespread interpretation involving storms has led to theories that electrical activity might stimulate or accelerate the development of these fruiting bodies.

Though fungi were revered by the Romans for medical use there was suspicion when considered as a dietary option perhaps because they were well-known to be used as poisons for assassinations. The emperor Claudius, in AD 54, is believed to have been poisoned by his fourth wife Agrippina with a dish of the very poisonous death cap fungus.

Unlike those in eastern Europe who followed Slavic, non-Christian writings this ‘Roman-originated’ suspicion continued to persist in western Europe, influenced by Christian scholars, who for the next 1,500 years classed fungi as pagan or evil artefacts of the devil. Those not influenced by such writings, including those from poorer rural communities, instead relied on lore about fungi passed down from previous generations and continued to collect and make use of fungi known to be safe, nourishing to eat or of use for medicinal purposes.

Chinese physicians were also confident prescribers of fungi, classifying them by their uses to treat conditions in different parts of the body. In the 1590s a medical publication suggested six fungi which were beneficial as an aid to extending life. Concoctions prepared using these mushrooms were reserved for important people who could afford the exorbitant price. In a notorious case, the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, consumed an elixir and soon after died. It was subsequently discovered that he had consumed a fungal preparation also containing both mercury and arsenic, which explained why the liquor had the opposite of the intended effect. Emperor Qin is better known as the commissioner of the mausoleum containing the Terracotta Army.

Across Europe, renewed interests in fungi for medicinal and for culinary purposes were rejuvenated in the 1600s. It was greatly accelerated around 1750 when Carl Linnaeus included fungi in his binomial taxonomic classification of all known species. There was an explosion in the interest of collecting all kinds of plants and animals during the Victorian era. This newly kindled breed of hobbyists needed assistance with identification. In turn this led to the publication of illustrated guides for the panoply of plants and animals, including fungi. This passion also encouraged culinary books which often set out which species of fungi were safe to eat with instructions for their proper preparation.

The development of DNA-based taxonomic classification has recently led to a revolution in the placement of fungi. In 2007 it was revealed that, if anything, fungi are marginally more closely related to animals than plants! There remains not one generally accepted classification system of fungi. However current thinking has resolved for the time-being at least that all fungi are to be assigned to a new Kingdom of Fungi which has codified and brought together the diverse groups or phyla of fungi into one classification system.

A word of warning. Having listened to several expert collectors of fungi who have had near misses, having either misidentified a species or not prepared/cooked the fungi correctly, I am content just to observe in situ rather than collect and consume fungi!

Chris Brown BEM
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