Saturday, December 31, 2011

Mushroom, my book review

Santa was kind, and read my Amazon wish list, and brought me a shiny new copy of Nicholas Money's new book Mushroom.   Now, I have a shelf full of books about mushrooms, and another shelf or two about other fungi that don't produce mushrooms, so I wasn't sure what to do once I had the thing in my hand.   A couple of points in the interest of full disclosure: 1. I haven't read all of my mycology books thoroughly, there just aren't enough hours in the day and there is lots of redundant information, so I don't feel like a bad person (or Persoon?) for this. And 2., I haven't read Mr. Bloomfield's Orchard, also by Dr. Money, nor either of his other books, though I feel as though I should now, since I enjoyed Mushroom so thoroughly.

Yes, having the book in my hand, and having some time between semesters, I did what a scholar should do when not teaching or out in the field (looking for fungi) or in the lab; I read the book.  And what a joy it was!  In spite of my beef with other reviews of the book which had nothing at all to do with the book itself,  I found it to be a good read on many levels (namely three).

It's educational. Even to a trained mycologist such as myself, I found much that I did not previously know within its pages.  He incorporates modern research as well as historical details about mushrooms and their academic acolytes.  That said, the writing, I think, isn't restricted to an audience of mycologists, but is accessible to a lay audience (though perhaps one that at least passed a course in biology).  As evidence of this, a friend who is an academic though not a scientist picked up the pick and started reading delightedly.

It's funny.  And no, he doesn't resort to cheap laughs so much as humorous imagery to illustrate points (such as Angelina Jolie flying through the air into a... not going to spoil the ending).    The hackneyed "fun-guy" reference is avoided, mercifully.  Most mycologists I've met have had a healthy sense of humor, and Dr. Money is no exception.

His views on the public perception of mycology succinctly defined and girded my own.  Mushrooms and other fungi have generally had two strikes against them in the eyes of the laity.  1.  They are bad, agents of sickness, decay and disease, and 2. Mushrooms are strange and magical, a window to the supernatural realm.
As to the first point. There is a common perception that mushrooms will kill you dead as soon as look at you.  True enough SOME mushrooms contain toxins that will either kill you or make you wish they had killed you, but the generalization of mushrooms being bad and poisonous has been exaggerated.  If you went out in the woods collecting mushrooms, and tried to eat all of them, it would be an act as indiscrete as saying you wanted to go hunting mammals in the woods with your bare hands.  Maybe you'd find a squirrel, but maybe you'd find a porcupine, or a mountain lion.  The potential results are the same.  Maybe you find a meal, but maybe the quarry would hurt or kill you instead.

As to the second point. (2. Mushrooms are strange and magical, a window to the supernatural realm)
Mushrooms and the fungi that produce them do have value ecologically, as well as having potential application to problems of humanity (both in the sense of those problems we cause and the problems we face in our quest for survival). However we should approach these solutions with a scientific mind, not by suggesting the fungi have a source of magic that we can tap if we all just wish hard enough.

For both of these points, the real problem is ignorance, and the real solution is a scientific approach.

In summary, if you have an interest in mushrooms (which well you might if you are reading this), then you will likely enjoy this book.  It won't tell you how to identify mushrooms (here you will need to fill your own bookshelf with other works), but it will hopefully explain why you should try.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Fungal news

I've been meaning to post a bunch of pictures of things I've been finding around my home, like those two Amanitas.  We had a week of moist and warmish conditions that allowed lots of mushrooms to come up.  But I've also been keeping half an eye on the fungal news.

In research news, an article just came out in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, showing that the spicy heat of chili peppers is related to the moisture of the home range.  Why? because the more moist the area, the greater the risk of infection by fungal pathogens, and the greater need for protective secondary compounds like capsaicinoids.  Here's a pop-sci wrap up of the research, which talks about the seed pathogen, a species of Fusarium, as 'the Fusarium fungus'.  There are many species of Fusarium, and they are a notoriously difficult genus to work with taxonomically.

Another article touts another medical benefit of mushrooms.  A diet high in selenium and nickel has been linked to a decrease in risk of pancreatic cancer, so a mushroom omelette is indicated by this newspaper, eggs being rich in selenium, mushrooms in nickel. Bonus: reference to the original article in the medical journal, Gut.

Monday, December 12, 2011

...and Amanita muscaria

Found a nice patch of these just a mile from my home here in Auburn, right near a stand of loblolly pines.  It's an amazing trove of sporocarps in all stages, from the just emergent buttons to large individuals with planar pilei and the warts on the caps washed off.  These are your poster children for the mushroom.  If you see a mushroom represented in the media, it's usually one of these guys.  From the home of the Smurfs to Mario Bros and on and on and on.  
I went out looking just in the neighborhood with one of my friends, and we can upon scads of things.  More to follow...

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Amanita citrina!

I came across this mushroom while I was depositing a check at my credit union. The willow oak in the background is in an island of asphalt, and is most likely the host for this ectomycorrhizal species.  It had been warm and rainy over the previous couple of days, and I was getting mushroom vision:  seeing mushrooms everywhere whether they were there or not.  I had a lot of work to do to finish out the term, getting final exams ready, etc, but I knew that the mushrooms were coming up and the freeze was coming too.  Fortunately I happened upon this fellow.  It looked very Amanita-y from the top,  warty veil remnants on the cap, brilliant white stipe, and with a little digging, you can see the volva at the base.  The cap had a pale yellowish green cast to it.  Weber and Smith helped get this very quickly to Amanita citrina.  The volva sure enough looked like a sliced loaf of bread, and the cap smells like raw potatoes, and I got a nice white spore print from it.