I met Lisa at Plas Newydd, Llangollen yesterday on a beautiful Autumn afternoon. We had dropped lucky; the weather was perfect for a fascinating forage in the wooded area called the Dell.
My only previous experience of foraging for mushrooms was with my Dad back in the late 70’s when he used to get me up early before school and we would drive in his pick up to a nearby woodland at first light. I remember a swirl of mist would always be close to the dewy grass on those mornings as I followed my Dad slow and careful footprints feeling important as I had the job of carrying mam’s wicker basket ready for our bounty. We were always quiet, whispering to each other which added to the excitement before he would stop abruptly causing me to bump into him more often than not and then he would point at the perfectly large field mushroom, take out his trusty pen knife to cut the stalk and then lower it gently into the basket. To my eyes they were as big as side plates and we really didn’t need much for a small feast. We would then drive home and he would cut up the mushrooms as big as steaks and fry them up and we would have a delicious breakfast with hot buttered toast. It’s the only time I remember my Dad cooking.
Beef Steak fungus dripping with ‘blood’
While we negotiated the gentle steps into the Dell Lisa gave me a bit of background into how her interest in all things fungi was piqued. She too spent her childhood collecting field mushrooms in the early morning with her father, and that was the extent of her foraging until around eight years ago as a leaving present for a friend who was emigrating to Australia she booked what sounded like a fun last trip together – a mushroom walk in Croydon! This walk run by Wild Food UK left a huge impression on Lisa – BREAKING down all her previous beliefs that most mushrooms are incredibly poisonous and that we should only eat field mushrooms. A couple of hours looking under hedges and at the edges of parks discovering a huge range of life was an eye opening experience – Lisa felt she’d been walking around with her eyes closed to this otherworld. Following the walk, the organisers cooked a delicious meal from their foraged haul in a pub car park, and it turned out the emigrating friend didn’t even like mushrooms… but Lisa was hooked. From that moment she was determined to keep her eyes open – so through books, websites, youtube videos and most importantly walking, Lisa built her knowledge and her confidence.
Lisa with a giant puffball
It turns out that mushrooms are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to fungus… a mushroom is the fruiting body, Lisa explained to me, the rest all happens out of sight – in soil, trees, plants and even animals. What we see as a mushroom is the vehicle the fungi uses to spread its spores or ‘seed’. The best time to look for the majority of mushrooms is in the Autumn preferably after a cold wet snap. Many speciality mushrooms that we’re familiar with buying in supermarkets such as chanterelles dried porcini can actually be found in abundance in our woodlands and grasslands in Denbighshire. Oyster mushrooms can be found much of the year and like to grow on rotting wood such as oak, making them rare as oak is often sought after for firewood but we did come across a tiny clump in the Dell promising to grow into a gourmet meal in the next few days. An edible summer mushroom is Chicken of the Woods named because of its feather type fanning which we also saw a great example in Plas Newydd however it was past its sell by date to be eaten.
A huge Chicken of the Woods in Plas Newydd
Wax caps that grow in grassland
We made our way deeper into the Dell, busy with squirrels and a very curious cat. As we examined some fallen wood, we spotted some strange growths emerging from the log. They protruded a few inches away from the log and were black like coal. Lisa was immediately excited as this was something she’d not seen before. She took out her phone to snap a photo and then showed me her top tip for anything unknown – the google image app, “you can search the web using the photograph, rather than text”. The app told us we had found Dead Man’s Finger. We then spotted wood worts on decaying beech and some aptly called Tapioca slime mould which to quote Lisa “ Looks like someone has slapped some porridge on a log”. These are all examples of what are known as inedible but not poisonous. For Lisa though mushrooms are not all about the eating – her fascination is with their variety and colours and what they can teach us about our landscapes. Through fungi Lisa has got to understand more about weather, trees and ecology and there’s always more to learn.
Lisa examining the Dead’s Man Finger which we found
Parasol in Dinas Bran
Fungi is its own kingdom, they are neither plants nor humans, vary widely in size from microorganisms to some of the largest known organisms on land and to date there are more than 100,000 species. Many have medicinal properties that we have long forgotten about. The Iceman Otzi who was discovered in the Alps in 1991, frozen for over 5000 years was found with two types of fungus in his pouch, one called King Alfred’s cake which is an excellent form of kindling and birch polypore with possible antibacterial medicinal qualities, indicating that the benefits of fungi were known over 5000 years ago, and so much of this knowledge has been lost in time.
One of Lisa’s favourite edible finds are puffballs as there are no lookalikes – “once you know what you’re looking for, you’re always safe with a puffball”, she said. They’re found in grassland and can grow to be huge. Most people remember kicking them like footballs as children! We later found one at Horseshoe Falls and Lisa promptly took it home for tea, “My favourite way of eating them is sliced, fried in butter, which is the best way of eating most things”.
Lisa often gives talks with slides to local groups such as WIs and gardening clubs and the mushroom which gets the biggest laugh is the Stink Horn, which smells like death and decay in order to attract animals to spread its spores… but also looks rather rude!
As we continued our walk we also saw bracket fungus which looked like coral, common ink caps so called as they deliquesce (a lovely word) into ink which in the past has been used for drawing. Each time, Lisa encouraged me to touch and smell our finds – explaining that identifying mushrooms involves getting close to them – taking spore prints, learning about gills and textures and smells. She also said it is good practice if you are foraging just to take a little of what you need and to always ensure there is plenty left.
It turns out that mushrooms will also help our ever pressing concerns about the climate and pollution – packaging is now being made out of fungi, reducing the need for plastic, and fully biodegradable; oyster mushrooms can be used to clean up oil spills.
Lisa introduced me to the work of Merlin Sheldrake a biologist and writer whose book Entangled life is a fascinating insight into how fungi shape our world, can change our minds and shape our futures. Leading research on the ‘wood wide web’ which suggests fungus has a communication system underground which deliver actions to help the earth and plant life live harmoniously. We discussed how people can be too focused on keeping our environment ‘tidy’ and Lisa would like to see more naturally wild spaces with fallen and decaying trees and plantlife being allowed to remain where they fall to help organisms such as fungi to thrive.
Porcini by the River Dee
So it appears Fungi are everywhere, but are easy not to notice until you start looking. Lisa’s enthusiasm was infectious and I’m already excited for my next autumn walk with new eyes.
Fly Agaric in Glyndyfrdwy
Please remember the countryside code and visit responsibly and please educate yourselves before eating any fungi.