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Fungi - a kingdom unto themselves

Late Autumn in Kerry is a rewarding time for the mushroom forager – winter chanterelles, hedgehog mushrooms and wood blewits among the edible species now at their peak. The fruiting bodies of velvet shank, a winter species, have yet to appear in Kerry this year. Over the last ten years since settling in Kerry, after having previously lived in counties Armagh and Tipperary, I have noticed that many mushrooms appear later in the season on Iveragh than up the country. From early summer through to winter, the different varieties of mushrooms seem to make their appearance in successive phases down the island like a Mexican wave. This year, reports of porcini and summer chanterelles were much earlier in Galway and Wicklow than in Kerry. Or are ‘my spots’ just a bit later?

What got my attention when I first beheld and tasted mushrooms on my dinner plate at the age of four was the fact that they were neither meat nor vegetable but something else entirely. After the meal, I sampled some raw toadstools from the garden and later proudly announced this fact to my mother. The freshness of the memory may be at least partly attributable to my being immediately rushed to hospital to have my stomach pumped - purely as a precautionary measure mind you.

Chanterelles - the winter chanterelles brown with yellow stems and the summer chanterelles 'egg yolk' yellow. Some poisonous species can be mistaken for chanterelles

Often compared to the apples on a tree, mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of a fungus which largely consists of a network of underground threads called a mycelium. As a life form, fungi are neither plant (Flora) nor anima (Fauna) but are classified in a distinct kingdom (Fungi) informally known as funga. This kingdom contains five major phyla that have been created in accordance with the various modes of sexual reproduction or by using molecular data of different species. Only 5% of the 2.2–3.8 million fungal species worldwide are known.

When we think of fungi, we tend to focus on their edibility - as a delicacy such as truffles, morels, ceps and chanterelles - all of which have been harvested in Ireland. Some species are deadly poisonous and no mushroom should be consumed without your first being 100% sure it is safe to eat. The hint is often in the name: potentially fatal mushrooms include the death cap, the destroying angel and the funeral bell. An attractive and pleasant-smelling browny-red mushroom with a pixie-like cap sometimes mistaken for chanterelles or magic mushrooms is the very poisonous and sometimes fatal 'deadly web cap'.

Fungi are complex and fascinating and play a part in almost every aspect of our lives. Their spores are in the very air we breathe. Without their role in decaying matter, the debris of the forest would accumulate indefinitely. Fungi have many culinary uses, especially in fermentation. While they have been used in folk medicine, within the last 100 years their use as antibiotics, in chemotherapy as well as in transplant surgery has revolutionised medical treatment worldwide. Fungi can also be unwelcome in our lives, causing potato blight, dry and wet rot in buildings as well as infecting our own bodies. Some fungi are carnivorous, the oyster mushroom a vegan food that can itself consume meat.

Hedgehog mushrooms - notice the hedgehog-like spines instead of gills

Others such as Ophiocordyceps unilateralis (the ‘zombie mushroom’), a species found predominantly in tropical forests, are insect-pathogenic, the fruiting bodies emerging from the head of the host insect to eventually rupture, thereby releasing the fungal spores. Some of the hallucinogenic varieties of fungi are also poisonous, the fly agaric the most iconic of these species. The red cap of the fly agaric is dramatically punctuated by little white peaks like dollops of icing, these the remains of the universal veil through which the cap originally emerged. The servants in some medieval royal courts are said to have been forced to eat fly agarics. Their hallucinogen-rich urine could then be consumed without fear of poisoning by the royals. The honey fungus, a parasitic fungus found in Ireland, is slightly bioluminescent. In the pitch dark, its gills can be seen to glow faintly. Slime moulds have neither legs nor appendages but move simply by changing their shape. A little understood but complex and fascinating life form that has been in existence before the advent of flora and fauna, mushrooms are also simply a joy to behold.

Fly agaric - growing in native woodland in Kerry

In future blogs, we will tell you more about fungi - which species grow when and their preferred habitats as well tips on how to identify the various species of mushroom.

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