Mycelial Meanderings with Phil McAustin

With a flourish of Phil’s pocket magnifying lens, a suckered tentacle stares back at me, an iridescent grey white. It looks like it should be coiling around a shipwreck, not oozing out of a fallen beech near National Trust Ashridge Monument.

I’m here with Phil McAustin, mycologist and wood specialist, on a thankfully sunny Wednesday in October after a heavy rain at the weekend.

” Environment, substrate, solitary, clump or trooping, colouring, height, cap size and shape, gill spacing and attachment, spore print…” begins Phil. There is a lot to remember! With mushrooms, the devil really is in the detail.

Phil shows me how to cut fungi in half lengthwise to ascertain whether the gills are adnate (free of the stalk) or decurrent (attached or running down the stalk). Below is a Common Earthball, showing the spores black inside. This is the one that explodes when ripe, and it is not edible! Apologies to Phil, who told me to use the Latin which I have now forgotten.

We found a few tasty Common Puffball too…they have a granulated surface of pleasant off white and a delicious meaty smell, and are white inside. As opposed to Earthballs with their cracked leather look, brown specks and black interior.

Below is an edible Amanita, hailing from that terrifying family including Death cap and Destroying Angel, which I was too scared to try. Amanitas are easily recognizable from the Volva (egg-like sac) that they grow out of. Dig into the soil near the base to check.

Honey fungus pokes out of a tree fairly high up the trunk. The tree is already dead, whether from this onslaught or another cause. The graceful sculptural form of this amber fungus can also be found in the dried mushroom selection at Waitrose! This is despite some cautions as to individual reactions to eating Honey fungus.

Not chicken or hen of the woods, frustratingly! Beautiful bracket fungus though.

Porcelain fungus has a shiny wet cap and you can see the light through the edges of the cap. Not edible, but pretty! Note the widely spaced gills.

We do find, however, some Beefsteak fungus, and some Amethyst Decievers. The beefsteak fungus drips a red fluid when cut and looks uncannily like a fresh kidney. It is edible but has an acrid aftertaste unless you boil it in some milk, which I didn’t do!

Amethyst Decievers are a stunning subtle purple colour, with a suede like feel and in rolled cap. They are small, but we got enough to make a bowl of Amethyst Miso Noodles. Phil shows me how to tell by the bank of earth that we are heading into ancient woodland, where we find many more mushrooms.

There are many more Phil showed me (and all the Latin names) but these are the most memorable. So get out there and get identifying…Il put more up as I meet them! Many thanks to Phil for his time and knowledge.

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