I began to learn about fungi as a volunteer and over the years have come to appreciate the immense diversity of species that are housed in the ‘Kingdom of Fungi’. I love the coming of autumn when mushrooms litter the woodland floor, and when the brightly coloured waxcaps dot the meadows.
Over the years I have learned the following things about fungi:
- Life on earth as we know it would not exist without fungi, dating back 800million years in the fossil record
- Woods and trees have relationships with fungi and mushrooms that are crucial to their growth and survival
- Many species of tree can’t live without the ‘symbiotic’ relationships they hold with fungi
- Life itself is a balance between defence from decay exacerbated by fungi and the need for reliance on all it offers to natural ecosystems
- Without fungi we would have no bread, beer (both because of yeast), cheese or washing detergent, nor would we have crucial drugs such as insulin which are derived from many different kinds of fungi
- We may be able to harness fungi to solve problems such as plastic packaging pollution by creating biodegradable/non-toxic alternatives
- It is likely that plants and fungi appeared from the oceans together in partnership when colonising land
I have never been a forager of mushrooms and respect the complexities surrounding the debates of whether foraging mushrooms harms wildlife and ecosystems or not. I see the immense pleasure of foraging wild food, but I’ve seen first hand the harm it can do.
Personally I would rather leave mushrooms for other people to be wowed by than to take them home for the pot. I say this strictly as an English person, where, unlike the Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, Estonia, Italy or Japan, there is not a long-term culture of mushroom picking. We tend to fear them more than anything. In Russian health books, for example, there are whole sections on edible mushrooms and, indeed, toxic ones. There are definite health benefits from consuming fungi that have aided our species and ancestors for thousands of years.
It’s not up to me but I think picking mushrooms for scientific and educational purposes is actually very important, if you have permission from the landowner/manager. I have led basic woodland fungi walks in the past and, though no expert, I think that picking for educational purposes is rewarding. I’ve only ever eaten one wild mushroom, picked by a friend in the Czech Republic. I would rather photograph them than eat them.