#FungiFriday: the story of Santa’s magic mushroom – part two

A German New Year’s card – with symbols of good luck, including fly agaric

Fungi Friday 25th December 2020

Merry Christmas to you! I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to post a second piece about the Santa Claus and magic mushroom myth. I saw an Instagram post by Gordon Walker which criticised the oft-repeated story (oops) of Santa and fly agaric mushrooms. I asked for more info and he kindly suggested listening to a psychedelic mushroom podcast.

https://www.podbean.com/ew/dir-t3mdd-545caae

Just to warn you, it’s a bit sweary and the author, Tom Hatsis, is pretty angry about the ignorance he suggests maintains the myth of fly agaric and Santa. He describes the proponents of this idea as conspiracy theorists. There is also a lot of talk about psychedelic drug taking which is not quite the content I’m looking for. I think you might have to read the book for him to substantiate his argument against the story.

What I gleaned from this interview:

  • There is no evidence that Santa Claus was a shamanic figure who consumed fly agaric mushrooms or used them to herd reindeer
  • There are no Siberian reindeer-herding shamans
  • Fly agaric does not appear in authentic Germanic Christmas cards, they’re New Years cards which use fly agaric as a good luck symbol, alongside horse shoes and four-leaf clovers
  • Jesus was not a mushroom…
  • Fly agarics would not dry on trees (to release hallucinogenic chemicals) in the very cold temperatures of Siberia or northern Scandinavia

Merry Christmas and thanks for reading.

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#FungiFriday: the most mushrooms I’ve seen in one day

Fungi Friday 20th November 2020

A few weeks ago I visited a favourite Sussex woodland renowned for its fungal life. Mushrooms were to be found everywhere. I was blown away.

I’m writing this a month later, having been taken out of the loop by illness for two of them (not Covid, thankfully) and now a national lockdown in England (Covid). Judging from a wintry woodland walk yesterday, I expect the trip will be my experience of the mushroom peak of 2020. So here’s how it went:

I knew it was going to be a fruitful visit when I turned into the reserve and saw mushrooms on either side of the lane. This amazing family of shaggy inkcaps provided a perfect autumn image. You can see the larger specimens heading into their state of deliquesce where the ink begins to form and drop, spreading the spores.

Across the lane these younger shaggies were just appearing from the soil.

There were puffballs in close attendance, including this very large pestle puffball. It appears that someone had been clearing the vegetation around it to get a better photo. That’s a bit of a no-no.

A more modest puffball was growing close by. I was testing out a new camera bought after trading in some underused camera equipment. I was using an Olympus E-M5 Mark 3. It’s a micro four thirds mirrorless camera, much smaller and lighter than my usual full-frame Nikon equipment. It passed the mushroom test with flying colours.

I have been thinking a lot recently about how photography may at times get in the way of my experiencing the outdoors. If you become weighed down with equipment, or perhaps distracted by other things, likewise with people, problems or other plans, it can hamper your ability to enjoy the moment. That was becoming an issue for me with photography. Taking photos required a lot of kit and much of it heavy. I have begun to question if it’s really worth it. Hence trying to lighten up both my equipment and my mentality.

In October there were a huge number of magpie inkcap images on social media. It has clearly had a good year. I wonder if in future that kind of data can be harnessed to understand the prevalence of certain species. A bit like open source investigate journalism.

Porcelian fungus has also had another solid year. There is one tree I head to, a semi-collapsed beech tree that is always home to these beauties in autumn. I like to photograph this fungus from below, sometimes using a light to illuminate the gills.

Porcelain fungus is translucent and glossy, so that helps it look even better in photos.

On the same log I found this mushroom, probably a bonnet. It was only later that I noticed the thread of silk running from the gills to the moss. That’s the beauty of macro photography, you don’t see everything straight away. It goes to show how poor our eyesight really is and how much we miss.

Further into the woodland I found this lovely cluster of shaggy scalycap mushrooms, just peaking and perhaps beyond their best. Here I used a tripod and an external LED to light them from underneath. I used a zoom lens and once again the camera was a winner.

There were mushrooms absolutely everywhere. It was probably the most mushrooms I have ever encountered in a single day. This stinkhorn is only the second I’ve ever found. Interestingly I had passed it earlier in the day and the black sludge that covers the top of the fungus had disappeared by about an hour or so later. I believe that is eaten by the insects you can see here, in order to spread the spores. It’s a gross fungus but utterly fascinating.

I know a pile of logs alongside the path that is always good in autumn for coral fungus. I was not to be disappointed. This could be a scene from The Little Mermaid or perhaps the ruins of some Bavarian mega-castle.

There were many fly agarics to be found, probably in the hundreds. One patch was in incredible condition. When I find scenes like this, it gives me an adrenaline rush, knowing I have a limited amount of time and opportunity to get the photo. You can see why I don’t take photos of birds or rare mammals, I would get far too excitable and probably drop the camera.

These fly agarics were some of the most vibrant I have ever encountered. Do check out my blog regarding the bizarre cultural tales about this fungus and the impact its had on our image of Christmas.

This fly agaric was untouchable. It’s the kind of thing I dream of all the year round. I love the way the leaves have been pushed up but still clamour at the stipe of the fungus. It was a perfect specimen. It’s the only place to end. I will be going looking for mushrooms this weekend but after weeks of torrential rain, I fear they may have been washed away. With colder temperatures coming soon with December’s arrival, it could be the end for our fungal friends. I’ll keep you posted.

Thanks for reading.

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#FungiFriday: the story of Santa’s magic mushroom

Fungi Friday 30th October 2020

Fly agaric, the most iconic mushroom of them all, is currently fruiting en masse in southern England. Looking at social media feeds, it seems to be the case across the UK. In the past week I have witnessed lots of these red and white amanitas in the Sussex Weald. It reminded me of the need to finally crack on and address the issue of fly agaric’s bizarre cultural history. It’s very weird and not something I can prove. But here goes.

The ecology of fly agaric

Fly agaric is a mycorhizzal species. This means it has a special relationship with trees that benefits both the tree and the fungus. The above troop of fly agaric are connecting to the roots of a silver birch tree. The red and white mushrooms are ‘the fruit on the tree’ of the fungus. Under the soil the spreading mycelium, a network of hair-like threads or hyphae, are connected to the root hairs of the birch. The mushroom itself is a massing of the hyphae. The birch is able to ‘direct’ the underground hyphae to reach certain minerals and nutrients it is unable to gather itself. Likewise the fungus will receive water and sugars in support.

It’s the wood-wide web.

Fly agaric is classified as a toxic mushroom to humans. Don’t eat it. As I’ve mentioned here before, it lives in a family of some deadly poisonous mushrooms such as the deathcap and destroying angel. One common use for Europeans has been to kill other insects (surprise, surprise), which is where it gets its name. The mushrooms were mashed into a paste or suchlike and left on windowsills to kill flies. Agaric is an old name for a type of mushroom. There you have it.

Was Father Christmas a mushroom-eating shaman?

That escalated quickly.

A couple of years ago some friends of mine went on a fungi foraging course in Wiltshire, south-west England. They came back with a story which I stole and haven’t stopped lording over unsuspecting acquaintances ever since.

In the coldest parts of northern Europe, places like Scandinavia or Siberia, where birch and coniferous trees are dominant, it was once a ritual for fly agarics to be consumed for hallucinatory purposes. The mushrooms are toxic but were picked and put in sacks that people carried over their shoulders. Then they were left in the, often coniferous, trees to dry out. When the fly agarics were in the trees to dry, they looked like what we in the western world consider Christmas decorations.

Fly agaric does seem to have strong Christmas symbolism, particularly in 20th Century German Christmas greeting card culture.

I don’t know where to begin with this. There are also horseshoes in both these images which are seen as a good luck charm. Their resemblance to a crescent moon is supposed to be significant in Celtic religions.

Back to the mushrooms: when the mushrooms in those Christmas-like trees had finally dried, they were used for hallucinogenic purposes by a shaman. It is said that the shaman arrived on a sled led by reindeer. He clamboured into the tent where people lived, through a hole in the roof where smoke could escape, and climbed down a birch timber used to keep the tent upright:

During the winter families would invite a Shaman to visit, they would arrive on a reindeer led sleigh and enter the yurt through the smoke hole (or chimney) and down the central pole, bringing with them a bag of dried fly agaric. The shaman would take the mushroom and go on a hallucinogenic journey gaining healing knowledge and advice from other realms to problem solve and help with concerns, a type of spiritual gift to be rewarded with offerings of food.

https://moa.co.uk/blogs/news/father-christmas-and-fly-agaric-folklore

Furthermore, when people consumed the dried mushrooms, they had visions of the reindeer flying. Reindeer are also known to like fly agaric and people once used the mushrooms to herd reindeer. You should probably give yourself five minutes to let this all sink in.

For reasons other than Covid-19, Christmas may never be the same again.

Thanks for reading.

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#FungiFriday: hedgehog mushrooms

Fungi Friday 9th October 2020

A couple of weeks ago I visited the New Forest and saw hedgehog mushrooms for the first time. There are several species of hedgehog mushroom in the UK, all being edible. Since then I’ve been doing my research to try and learn more about them. This video has been helpful:

In short, hedgehog mushrooms are difficult to confuse with anything else because they have spikes where gills or pores are usually found, under the mushroom’s cap. If you want to eat any wild mushroom you should be sure you have used several different forms of identification and are completely sure of what it is.

I was out for a short photography expedition (walk) at the weekend and I discovered some more hedgehog mushrooms. Their numbers were so healthy and the shrooms themselves were in such good condition, I couldn’t help pick a few for myself.

I used my penknife to cut the mushrooms at ground level. I then used the knife (as in the video) to remove the spikes.

This may help with spore dispersal and allow more hedgehog mushrooms to spread.

This is what they look like in the wild. The caps of these mushrooms were a bit mouldy.

I got the mushrooms home as quickly as possible. I didn’t have an air-proof container to put them in so time was of the essence. I cleared the rest of the spikes from them and washed them, scraping off any excess soil.

I had no idea of a recipe for the mushrooms, I hadn’t even planned to eat them. I fried them in some butter and garlic until they were lightly browned.

In short, they were delicious. I think they would work well with something like chorizo.

Back to the woods where the mushrooms I had no intention of eating were doing really rather well.

The edge of the town I live in has a lot of conifer plantation, once heathland, a sandy, acidic habitat. There is plenty of silver birch which means fly agaric.

This was the best specimen I could find, a veritable pondshroom.

The leaf litter is becoming so damp from recent heavy rain that smaller species are coming up. Woodland soils are incredibly rich in life and our footfall can be very damaging if not managed in sensitive places. This small mushroom (mycena, I think) is one that can be easily found at this time of year. The time before leaves fall is an easier time to find fungi. This is also because after the leaves fall the cold weather comes and mushrooms are held back.

My favourite find of the week, despite the delicious hedgehogs, was this pink fungus growing at the base of a pine tree stump. It took me a while to work out what this species is. Bizarrely, it took the accidental viewing of a YouTube video to learn that it’s called plums and custard! It is a stunning shroom.

Thanks for reading.

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#FungiFriday: September shrooms in Scotland, part three โ€“ Lochnagar

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Fungi Friday 1st May 2020

For another week the Covid-19 pandemic is keeping me away from the woods and therefore the shrooms. This fungal breaking news desk has run out of scoops, so itโ€™s more like a sports channel airing classic re-runs.

I had been intending to post about some fantastic fungal hiking experiences (sounds weird) from a 2018 visit to Scotland but work and life stopped me. I do hope anyone reading this is doing well and that youโ€™re following the guidance.

Cairngorms - September 2018 djg-4

These posts remind me of my uncle Joe Reilly who passed away in November. Joe was a Glaswegian by birth who, along with my aunt Marg, introduced me to some of the most beautiful places the UK has to offer in Perthshire, among so many other gifts. I would visit Marg and Joe in Perthshire as often as I could, often in autumn when going to meet my hiking companion Eddie (seen here) for a jaunt in the Cairngorms.

Joe fell for fungi like I did in recent years and I will always miss his WhatsApp messages with mushrooms he had found on Perthshire walks. We miss his thirst for life terribly but carry it on just as he did.

Last week I was sharing fungi found on a hike to the top of Ben Vrackie in Perthshire.

This week my final Scotland post makes me feel like a bit of a cheat. The post is built around an incredible hike led by the rangers of the Balmoral Estate in the Cairngorms National Park with only one serious mushroom to be found. But it was one special shroom, and probably one you want to eat if you haven’t already. I will soften that blow with some dodgy phone pic shrooms.

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I was visiting the Cairngorms for a Europarc Conference and there was very little time to get out on foot in the mountains and hills. Most of my photos looked like this one above, a phone pic taken while being ferried around in a minibus.

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I was staying in Aviemore and there were a pleasing selection of shrooms found right next to the pavement in the verges. This is a giant puffball in its early stages, part brain part, well, bottom.

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I’m not entirely sure what this species is, I thought it might be in the Macrolepiota/Lepiota family (where parasols are found) but can’t find a candidate just now.

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This is almost certainly brown rollrim, a deadly poisonous fungus. It’s growing out of ballast, which is no surprise as I’ve seen it growing next to pavements in south London.

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And behold, a very well trampled cauliflower fungus.

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Winner of the truly worst phone pic was this fly agaric which was absolutely belting it out from underneath a hedge in a residential area.

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As mentioned at the start of this blog, I was lucky enough to go on a hike to Lochnagar on the Balmoral Estate, led by a very nice ranger and a professional guide, who was also very nice. There were National Park staff from all across Europe. I spoke to one ranger from Iceland who would be spending her winter driving around the vast areas of her Park undertaking works to signage and all manner of other things. She was the real deal. Our National Parks are tiny in comparison to many in Europe, though the Cairngorms is the closest we probably get to some of Europe’s most rugged wildness. The Balmoral Estate is not a good example of that because of the intensive management to support grouse shooting. Apparently the Queen still drives around the Estate in her Land Rover.

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There were extreme winds at the time of the walk and we didn’t make it to the peak of Lochnagar. It was too dangerous. Though you’re unlikely to find much fungal diversity at these altitudes (1000m+) there was a familiar neon lichen on the boulders. This is Rhizocarpon geographicum.

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It took a real effort to actually hold my camera in place and take this photo. It was incredibly windy. This is Lochnagar. The peak can be seen in about the middle distance where a small cairn stands.

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At this point we were all told to put our cameras away because the winds were going to hit hard. They did, it was incredible.

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You’re probably wondering – where are the shrooms? But let it be a lesson to you, finding fungi can be really hard. Sometimes it’s all there at the side of the pavement, but at other times you will see nothing.

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At the point where our minibus was parked I could not believe what I saw. This is a cep, otherwise known as porcini or pennybun. Its Latin name is Boletus edulis. It is the most prized edible mushroom. This was the most perfect specimen I have ever come across. In the background is Loch Muick, with the classic Scottish rain, sun and wind falling in the background. I can still get a tingle of the joy of finding this mushroom, against that background, in such a stunning location.

Thanks for reading.

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#FungiFriday: September shrooms in Scotland, part one: Pitlochry

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Ben Vrackie as seen from Clunie Wood

Fungi Friday 17th April 2020 via September 2018

For another week the Covid-19 pandemic is keeping me away from the woods and therefore the shrooms. To be honest though, my town is so deserted at the moment that I am kind of hoping some shrooms start popping up soon in the paving. Especially considering there is rain coming today.

I had been intending to post about some fantastic fungal hiking experiences (sounds weird) from a 2018 visit to Scotland but work and life stopped me. I have three hikes to share with you which should get you through the next three weeks of lockdown. I do hope anyone reading this is doing well and that you’re following the guidance.

These posts remind me of my uncle Joe Reilly who passed away in November. Joe was a Glaswegian by birth who, along with my aunt Marg, introduced me to some of the most beautiful places the UK has to offer in Perthshire, among so many other gifts. I would visit Marg and Joe in Perthshire as often as I could, often in autumn when going to meet my hiking companion Eddie (seen here) for a jaunt in the Cairngorms. Joe fell for fungi like I did in recent years and I will always miss his WhatsApp messages with mushrooms he had found on Perthshire walks. We miss his thirst for life terribly but carry it on just as he did.

This week I’m reminiscing about a great walk in the wooded hills of Pitlochry.

Perthshire - September 2018 djg-14

The walk was on a Friday afternoon from the door of our guesthouse in Pitlochry but can also be done from Pitlochry railway station. It’s a stunning place, close to the southern border of the Cairngorms National Park. My friend Eddie lives in Glasgow and his journey was a wee bit quicker than mine from Sussex. Above you can see Eddie not at all incongruous in the landscape All these pics are taken with the amazing Canon Powershot G7X MII in RAW format and processed in Adobe Lightroom.

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Scotland has deliciously wet and humid woodlands which in some parts constitute what is affectionately known as ‘Celtic Rainforest’. This is my habitat, the milder temperatures and shadier conditions far better suit my Celtic biology (which is not actually something that exists in Science).

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These birch trees were host to large hoof fungus brackets and many foliose lichens. These are commonly found on the acidic soils of heather moorland that covers so much of the Scottish Highlands.

These dead standing trees are a vital source of biodiversity in woodlands. They are the thing we have lost but are slowly, very slowly, returning to the landscape thanks to sensitive management.

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In Clunie Wood I found my first ever jelly babies. These are a bizarre species that do look like the sweets. They were growing in large numbers under shade in a wet area alongside the path.

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At the edge of a plantation we found a huge fly agaric.

Here is Eddie getting a pic which gives a sense of scale. September seems a good month for fly agaric in the Highlands of Scotland.

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The conditions were perfect for fungi and these beautiful bonnet mushrooms were alongside lichens on a tree stump.

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This quite hilarious clump of mushrooms (they were growing from one small stump… had to be there) are probably a type of honey fungus described in Latin as Oystoyae.

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This cheeky slime mould was another sign of the exceptional conditions with the mixture of broadleaf woodland and conifer plantation providing lots of moisture.

I always think orange peel fungus is some kind of plastic pollution. Having worked in urban nature conservation it reminds me of litter picks pulling old bits of traffic cone out of the soil!

At the edge of the woodland the beautiful heather moorland appears and views expand into the Grampian Mountains of the Cairngorms National Park.

Thanks for reading and keep dreaming!

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