Looking around the internet I came across someone looking for information on whether or not the mushrooms he and his wife had collected were edible. One piece of advice he got was “my understanding is as long as they are brown on the underside they are sweet”. Combined with other observations this is a useful characteristic. On its own it could be deadly.
It reminded me of the advice that Henry Connor gave in The Poisonous Plants of New Zealand:
The possibility that a fungus may be toxic to man is ever present. Specific warnings are difficult to give and the wisest precautions are to exercise the greatest care and to establish the known record of any fungus before eating it.Hoary old chestnuts
Henry then lists all of the hoary old chestnuts that people believed were used to test for edibility:
- Appearance is no guide to edibility.
- Odour is no guide to edibility.
- Peeling of the cap does not mean edibility.
- A sharp bitter taste is not characteristic of poisonous fungi.
- Both poisonous and edible fungi may be viscid [means sticky or slimy].
- Rapid change in colour when cut or broken is not a guide to edibility.
- Green, red and white fungi are found among both poisonous and edible species.
- Exudation of a milky fluid when broken is not characteristic of edible fungi only.
- Fungi nibbled by rabbits and other animals are not necessarily safe for human consumption.
- Fungi which are slug-eaten are not necessarily edible. Slugs thrive on Amanita phalloides [the death cap], the most poisonous fungi known.
- Site of growth is no indication of edibility: for example mushrooms growing on highly manured places are not necessarily poisonous nor are those growing near rusty nails.
- Fungi growing near serpents are not necessarily poisonous.
- Blackening of a spoon, blackening of a silver coin, coagulation of milk, turning an onion bluish, turning an onion brown, and turning of parsley yellow are not safe indications of the presence of poisonous fungi. Fungi which do not act in any of these ways are not necessarily edible.”
This is the one that killed me
At the end of the day the best advice is
- Get a few good guide books that give good descriptions of the mushroom and the places it grows.
- Study the books and make sure you understand the terms that are being used.
- If possible seek advice from some one that has experience (in person or on-line).
- If in doubt then throw it out.
And if you are still unsure and go ahead and eat then leave some in the fridge labelled “this is the one that killed me”. That way we can all learn from your experience.
Connor HE, 1977. The Poisonous Plants of New Zealand. New Zealand Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. Bulletin 99.
I was walking my usual beat out in the bush collecting mushrooms and I stopped to look at a dead possum at the base of a beech tree. I had noticed it the last time I was out two weeks ago. Since then its body had collapsed and fur was beginning to come loose. It was just the normal decay process happening as it does – dust to dust.
Death in the forest
Possums, along with rats and stoats, had caused the bird population to crash so it was very quiet. It was likely the possum had been poisoned as part of a control programme for these introduced pests. Standing their looking at its remains I heard a rustling. Looking around I saw nothing. I stood and listened. It was a continuous rustling sound. Looking down I saw movement in the dry leaf litter. Looking harder I saw a line, more of an arc, of maggots moving away from the possum. I assumed that they had eaten all there was to eat and they were seeking a place to pupate. I never did find out whether or not this was normal behaviour for fly maggots.
Them bones …
This was in the late autumn (late April and early May). I kept an eye on the possum remains as it was quickly reduced to bones and a little fur. Then at the beginning of October I saw a group of mushrooms, Laccaria, growing amongst the bones. Two weeks later there were even more.
This was way back in 1986 during the first collecting season of my PhD. The place was Paua Ridge in the Orongorongo Valley to the east of Wellington. At the time I didn’t think much about but later I learnt of the work of Naohiko Sagara, from Japan, on ammonia fungi.
Sargara had studied fungi that were associated either decomposing bodies, or animal latrines where large amounts of ammonia or nitrogen compounds accumulated. In what I was seeing in the Orongorongo was a fungus, Laccaria, in a mycorrhizal association with a tree, Nothofagus truncata, mopping up the nitrogenous waste products from the decomposition of the possum and transferring that nitrogen back to the tree. Neat huh! Natural selection never ceases to astound me.
Two genera, Hebeloma and Laccaria, seem to have become the main ammonia fungi. But not all species in the genera are ammonia fungi. In Australia it is Hebeloma aminophilum is the one and is known as the ‘ghoul fungus’. Here in New Zealand it seems to be Laccaria masoniae as it is frequently found growing around bones. However, it has not been proven by any rigorous study.
Sagara, N. 1995. Association of ectomycorrhizal fungi with decomposed animal wastes in forest habitats: a cleaning symbiosis? Canadian Journal of Botany 73 (supplement 1): s1423-s1433.
Note: The dead possum is from Backyard Kiwi (Whangarei Heads Landcare Forum) a community project to restore kiwi to the Whangarei peninsula.
Twenty years ago when I was working for the Forest Health group at the New Zealand Forest Research Institute in Rotorua I received a letter from Frank Blom who lived in Awanui, Northland. Frank said:
In Nov, ’95 I noticed some 50 to 60 ‘glow worms’ on the bark of living Golden Willows in my place on the alluvial flats along the Awanui River.
They were clearly visible 2 to 3m away, but the source of the light could not be found by torchlight. A magnifying-glass however showed tiny mushrooms. By 25th Dec. there were only a few left and I brought one inside by breaking off a piece of bark.
I wrote back that it was probably an undescribed species of Mycena and that I was not aware that any of the described New Zealand species were bioluminescent. The closest species, geographically, to New Zealand at that time was Mycena chlorophanus from Queensland.
More recently I came across a blog by Anna Chinn who blogged about a night-time excursion to Matawai, near Gisborne in search of glowing tree ferns. In fact the glow came from a Mycena rotting the dead fronds skirting the trunk of Cyathea smithii. Not only does the mushroom glow but so too does the fungal hyphae growing through the dead frond.
The Mycena in question goes by the working name of Mycena ‘Crystal Falls’ which is the location (Waipori/Crystal Falls, Otago) that it was collected from and first suspected to be a new species. It has been collected from the deep south to the far north. It has been found growing on the ferns Cyathea medullaris, Cyathea smithii, Blechnum sp., on the natives Ripogonum scandens and Metrosideros excelsa, and the exotic Salix fragilis.
Fungi at War
In general bioluminescent fungi are not obvious in New Zealand. Ian Hood (1992) wrote:
Fresh Armillaria-decayed wood is bioluminescent and can be seen glowing eerily along bush-tracks on dark nights.
While Peter Buchanan (2006) said of Armillaria decay:
Decayed wood when fresh emits a weak light (bioluminescence), the glow visible in forests on dark nights.
John Ramsbottom in 1923 in A Handbook of the Larger British Fungi wrote about luminosity of decaying wood. He said that it had been known from classical times and referred by Aristotle. He gave many examples of its use through time but only one really comes close to home when he talks about World War I:
In many places on the Western front during the war our troops found luminous wood useful for putting in the straps of their steel helmets and on the fore-sights of their rifles.
In the New Zealand context Steven Brightwell (1993) wrote:
World War One soldiers nailed bits of fungus-infested wood to their helmets and bayonets. The phosphorescent fungi, glowing faintly in the dark, provided enough light to enable the soldiers to avoid collisions in the trenches, but not enough to make them targets for the enemy.
I haven’t been able to find any direct reference to this practice by New Zealand troops – if you have let me know where.
Brightwell, S 1993. Feasting on fungi. New Zealand Geographic 18 (June): 34-58
Buchanan, P 2006. Fungal Biodiversity. In Parsons, S., Blanchon, D., Buchanan, P., Clout, M., Galbraith, M., Weihong, J., Macdonald, J., Walker, M, Wass, R, 2006. Biology Aotearoa. Pearson Education New Zealand. ISBN 1 877268 00 3. Pp 72-83
Hood, I 1993. An illustrated guide to fungi on wood in New Zealand. Auckland University Press.
Here is Taylor Lockwood’s photo of Mycena ‘Crystal Falls’ that Jerry Cooper mentions in his comment below.
I posed the question to myself – if I had to pick 10 fungi to epitomise mycology in New Zealand what would they be and why would I choose them? In some cases I have blogged about them before and some I will do so in the future. So here is my choice.
1. Amanita muscaria is number one as this exotic fungus would be one of the most obvious and abundant mushrooms in our autumn landscape. It is beneficial in that it is an ectomycorrhizal fungus and is important in enhancing the growth of our pine and Douglas-fir plantations.
2. Armillaria novae-zelandiae and Armillaria limonea are two native species that have wreaked havoc in our tree plantations and kiwifruit orchards. They actively attack the roots and root collar of wood plants and are capable of killing them.
3. Entoloma hochstteri – this beautiful blue native mushroom is every ones holy grail to find. It is also the only mushroom to appear on currency, NZ$50, anywhere in the world. See Hochstetter’s blue pinkgill.
4. Pithomyces chartarum is an exotic microfungus that you will never see that decomposes dead grass. However, it can produce spores in great numbers at times, such as this year, and causes the disease known as facial eczema in sheep and cattle. The spores contain a toxin which can severely damage the liver of the affected animal and can lead to death. See Brown Grenades.
5. Gloeophyllum sepiarium, Gloeophyllum trabeum, Oligoporus placenta and Antrodia sinuosa – I am treating this functional group of four native wood decay fungi as one. They cause cubical brown rot and are the most prevalent species causing damage in leaky house syndrome in New Zealand. They rose to prominence in the 1990s after changes in building regulations saw the use of unsuitable material and building styles resulting in buildings not being weather proof. See Fungi in leaky homes.
6. Ileodictyon cibarium is our most common native stinkhorn and once seen never forgotten. I included this one as it one of the few species that has some Maori lore associated with it so bridges the gap between traditional knowledge and western science.
7. Neotyphodium lolii is another exotic microfungus that you will never see but which has had a significant effect in New Zealand pastoral farming. The fungus is an endophyte growing between the cells in a ryegrass plant. It produces a toxin that affects the nervous system of grazing animals. Modern ryegrass cultivars have been bred and inoculated with non-toxic strains of Neotyphodium lolii to overcome this significant disease.
8. Cyttaria gunnii is a distinctive Gondwanan element of our fungal flora. It is a parasite on southern beech [Nothofagus]. Cyttaria species occur in New Zealand, Tasmania, SE Australia, and southern Chile and Argentina. See Cyttaria galls on silver beech.
9. Auricularia cornea is a very common native wood decay fungus and was the basis of the first fungal export industry in New Zealand. See Taranaki wool.
10. Melampsora larici-populina is an exotic fungus causing rust on poplars. It arrived in the mid 1970s defoliating poplars across the country. It was the first well documented case of a fungal disease blowing in from Australia in a process that was to become known as trans-Tasman transport. See Melampsora leaf rusts in New Zealand.
Charlotte Westwood tweeted about ergot on Timothy grass and with pictures of the seed being processed and cleaned. Ergot forms when a fungus, Claviceps purpurea, which lives inside the plant and between its cells (it’s then called an endophyte) hijacks the grass flower and converts it to a black stromata or overwintering stage. The stromata drop to the ground and develop into fruiting bodies in the spring releasing spores that colonise newly sprouting grass plant.
Collection of ergot. Intensive drive. Need for war purposes.
Ergot was important because it was a source of drugs that were used to stop bleeding during child birth and surgery. For Britain the need for such drugs would be critical for the treatment of wounded soldiers and civilian during World War II. However the major source ergot was Europe [… from Central Europe, Hungary, Rumania, Spain and Russia, where they were collected, mostly by children, from crops of ryecorn …] which was no longer available. Step up mark the far flung Dominions of the Empire.
The Imperial Government has asked New Zealand to send all possible supplies
The collection of ergot in the Dominion is being sponsored by the Department of Agriculture with the co-operation of a number of organisations, whose members are taking up the work with enthusiasm.
Many tons of first quality ergot go to waste every summer in the swamp areas of New Zealand. Ergot is worth just now up to 8s [8 shillings] a pound in money value, but is worth infinitely more in terms of human lives and suffering. It is obviously the duty of everyone who has the opportunity to collect every pound for dispatch to Britain.
Escaping the drudgery of school
Dawn Rose reminisced about Onekaka School in Golden Bay. She recalled of how in the summer, her class would go out and pick ergot-infected seed heads. “We’d spend hours along the roadsides pulling the heads right apart to find it. There was something in it that stopped bleeding, we were told. Our teacher would put it all in a jar and send it off.” However the collecting of ergot fell far short of the government’s expectation. They had anticipated collecting 14 tons [35840 pound] in 1942 but only 1600 lb were collected.Meanwhile Department of Agriculture scientists collected ergots from around New Zealand and along with a strain they believed came from Hungary, attempted to artificial infect rye grass. It was estimated that 479lbs per acre but they only managed 176 lbs.
But even worse analysis of the New Zealand ergots at the University of Otago’s chemistry department found that the New Zealand ergot didn’t produced the needed chemicals and the Hungarian wasn’t much better.
So the call for ergot was cancelled in 1943.
105 weekly installments
Are you old enough to remember New Zealand’s Heritage in 105, 95c weekly parts. It was published following the enthusiasm for our history following the 1969 Bicentenary celebrations of Cook’s discovery of New Zealand. It said about the development of science in New Zealand:
Accounts of the survival of archaic forms of life amid exotic settings of temperate jungle and volcanic fantasy filtered back to European naturalists for the most part engrossed in classification or the study of systems. There were tales of snow-capped active volcanoes rising from pumice and ash desert scattered with “grass trees”; of boiling mudpools and geysers spurting in luxuriant tree-femed ravines; of the flightless kiwi bird and huge bones of the extinct moa; of “living fossils” among native shellfish.
Small wonder that some of the best European scientist-explorers set out, fascinated but sceptical, for the two remote little islands in the South Pacific. Some came to settle; this was the age of the generalist, when almost every educated man was interested in natural science, and William Colenso and other early missionaries, William Swainson, F.R.S. the farmer-ornithologist (better known as a painter), W. R. B. Mantell and many others added their records.
That Scot in Piptea Street
One of those men was the Scot John Buchanan. He came to Wellington from Dunedin when James Hector became director of the Geological Survey and Colonial Museum. For the twenty years John was in Wellington he lived in Piptea Street in Thorndon.John Buchanan played a significant role in scientific life of the community, the establishment of the Colonial Museum (later to become the Dominion Museum and then Te Papa) and the Wellington Botanic Garden. His influence was significant enough that the garden was referred to as the ‘Buchanical Garden’ by some at the time.
A first fungal list
I became aware of John Buchanan as a botanist, with a passing interest in fungi, while researching a checklist of fungi for the Wellington region in 1997. He published a list of 52 fungi in 1873 but because he did not cite specimens or locations, and as taxonomic concepts have changed I did not include them in the checklist.
Since then I became aware of John’s notebook, known as MS41, had been rediscovered and Linda Tyler, Director, Centre for Art Studies, University of Auckland sent me a PDF of it. It contained John’s fungal field notes that he based the 1873 upon. And excitingly it includes collections from around Wellington including the Botanic Garden. Here were notes from ‘my patch’ from 140 years ago.
Here are a few of the fungi from John’s notebook. The first is Ileodictyon cibarium collected in Wellington in May 1873. This fungus was described by Edmond Tulasne and Charles Tulasne in 1844.
Over the last couple of blogs I have talked about Clavogaster virescens. Here is John’s drawing and notes from the mid 1870’s. It was not to be named and described until 1890 by George Massee.
The last one is un-named but is clearly Amanita australis collected in Wellington in July 1875. This species would not be described or illustrated until 1962 by Greta Stevenson.
To know the man better read the biographies by Nancy Adams and the Friends of the Wellington Botanical Garden below. But to get a feel for the real man read Lyndia Tylers account of the herbarium battles between john and Thomas Kirk.
Buchanan J. 1873. Notes on the flora of the province of Wellington, with a list of plants collected therein. Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute 6: 210-235.
Dell RK. 2013. ‘Hector, James’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 9 October 2013
Friends of the Wellington Botanical Garden Inc. “Old ‘Buckie’ and the ‘Buchanical Gardens'”
Tyler L. 2015. Botanical battles – John Buchanan and Thomas Kirk as illustrators in Hector’s Herbarium. Finding New Zealand’s Scientific Heritage Conference Handbook 23-24 November 2015 Victoria University of Wellington Wellington, New Zealand P. 18
He harore rangi tahi – a mushroom only lasts a single day *
What might be true for mushrooms is not true about emails and txts. Here are some of the fungi that people have asked me about.
Wellington Botanic Garden 10.07.2016
Lea Robertson asked if I had seen the bolete under the maritime pine (Pinus pinaster), below the herb garden, at the Wellington Botanic Garden. I wandered up there at lunchtime and there was a good, but now slightly old, flush of Suillus luteus [slippery-jack bolete].
Wellington’s Central Park 01.07.2016
Lea had asked earlier about an ‘earthball’ she had seen in Wellington’s Central Park. The photo she sent was a typical Scleroderma verrucosum. See more photos of Scleroderma verrucosum in my earlier blog.
Wood chips 24.06.2016
Eoin was seeking an identification of an LBM (little brown mushroom) he found growing on wood chip in his back garden. He described it as ‘tan brown with a wee nipple on top’, and stem as the ‘same colour as the cap’. Identifying LBMs is always a challenge especially from a photo. My best guess was it was a Galerina species, as they were fruiting in my garden at the same time. I thought it might be somewhere around Galerina nana.
Island Bay 13.06.2016
Olwen Mason reminded about the purple funnelcaps [Lepista nuda] that came up in here Island Bay garden in 2014 and that there were more now. She said that they weren’t as purple as last time and wondered whether they would colour-up as they aged.
Brian Ward asked if I could identify the mushrooms that come up in his Waikanae garden (Kapiti coast) each year. He said that they grew in the plum and oak leaf litter. Brian also said that they were identical to ones he saw under totara trees in Otaki.
Brian had made an attempt at an identification using books and thought maybe it was a ‘chantarel’. Given the typical gills run down the stem (decurrent) it wasn’t too bad an attempt. He also admitted that he had eaten them in previous years without ill effects. It is what we have been calling in New Zealand the cloudy funnelcap [Clitocybe nebularis].
This is the best fit for the New Zealand species but it might yet prove to be something else especially as molecular studies are carried out in Europe. In Europe Clitocybe nebularis is considered edible.
Jim Waters sent me his observations on fungi in pine plantations at Waitarere Beach. “As indicated the display has been impressive over the last few weeks. I was particularly interested in the brown upright rubbery fungi with sort two part, almost like leaves, growing … all round one Pinus radiata stump.” This threw me for a bit but I’m pretty sure that it is a false morel [Gyromitra infula] which Michael Kuo at MushroomExpert.com describes as “broadly lobed cap is usually pinched into two lobes, creating a saddle-shaped appearance”.Jim also said “I thought the very small white fungus in another stump looked like the recently infamous Split gill, but was not sure. Very small (3-4mm) and looked very like a very small piece of the head of cauliflower, until it is turned over as demonstrated.” And yes I agree with Jim’s identification – split-gill [Schizophyllum commune].
“The third one was the large “puff ball” like structure which looked as if it had started to deflate, but very big.” And the puff ball is the skull puffball [Calvatia craniiformis].
* Makareti, 1938. The Old time Maori. Victor Gollancz, London