British Wildlife of the Week
If you ask a child to draw a toadstool or mushroom, chances are they will produce something that looks very much like the fly agaric. This distinctive species has a thick white stem topped with a bulbous red cap, which is dotted with white blotches. Its autumnal abundance and vibrant, gaudy colours have made the fly agaric probably the most recognised and iconic of all our mushrooms. Unsurprisingly, it is widely encountered in popular culture – garden ornaments and children’s books often depict gnomes and fairies using these archetypal toadstools as seats or homes, and they also appear in the Super Mario Bros series of video games as power-up items.
The bright colours of the fly agaric are a clear warning to animals that it is poisonous to eat. It can, in fact, be deadly to humans, although a fatal dose would probably require you to eat around 15 caps. For centuries, the indigenous Koryak people of Siberia ate the raw mushroom in small quantities to take advantage of its known hallucinogenic properties. Shamans would ingest the mushroom to achieve a trance-like state, and their followers would then drink the shamans’ urine to share their experience. A shaman’s kidneys would filter out some of the toxins, meaning those that drank the expelled urine could get the psychoactive benefits without any of the risks.
The clusters of mushrooms that we see sprouting from the soil are only a tiny fraction of the overall organism. For most of the year, fungi are hidden underground, existing as an interwoven network of long, branching, filamentous threads called hyphae. But for a short period, mainly from September to November, fungi produce mushrooms, which emerge above ground. A mushroom is, perhaps, the fungal equivalent of a flower, often with bright colours to match. As the fruiting bodies of the organism, they produce vast numbers of microscopic spores from which more fungi grow.
Fungi are often mistaken for plants, but they don’t have true stems, roots or leaves, and they don’t make their own food using photosynthesis. Instead, they find it in decaying matter in the soil. They are so fundamentally different from both plants and animals that they constitute a kingdom of living organisms that is entirely their own.
Around 120,000 species of fungi have been formally described, although the true number has been estimated at 2.2 to 3.8 million. There are more than 15,000 known species in the UK alone. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 decreed that all UK species in need of protection should have a common English name. While nearly all British plants and animals already possessed one, the majority of fungi did not. The British Mycological Society, therefore, set about creating ‘common’ names for almost all fungi in the country. Thus, today we have the mousepee pinkgill, the cabbage parachute, the scurfy twiglet, and the dung cannon amongst many others. The fly agaric, however, had been given a name long before that. As its name suggests, it was formerly used as an insecticide, with pieces of it often placed in saucers of milk to intoxicate and supposedly kill flies attracted by its aroma.
In the next British Wildlife of the Week, we’ll be looking at an introduced bird whose days are almost numbered in this country – the ruddy duck.