So far this October the weather has done nothing but rain. Some parts of the UK saw a whole month’s worth of rainfall in a single weekend and 3rd October was the wettest day on record. All this wet weather is good for two things: puddle splashing and fungi spotting. Mushrooms and toadstools have sprouted up all over the place after the recent downpours.
My interest in wild mushrooms began after attending a local fungi foraging event back in 2016. Founded by Haringey’s former Conservation Officer, David Bevan, the Grand Haringey Fungus Foray has been taking place every autumn since 1990. Sadly, I’ve never had the chance to go again (as I’ve been busy having babies over the last few years) and the Covid-19 pandemic has put paid to this year’s event. So, I’m going to take the time to reminisce about my fungal awakening here.
The Grand Haringey Fungus Foray is a guided autumnal fungi walk with a twist: participants are encouraged to pick, as well as photograph, their finds in order to get up close and correctly identify them.
Fungi foraging in Britain has surged in popularity in recent years. However, it has attracted a lot of negative press. Mushrooms and toadstools are the fruiting bodies of fungi; the majority of the fungal organism exists beneath the ground in the form of mycelia –a web like structure that absorbs nutrients from its surroundings and performs many vital ecological functions, including aiding the growth of trees and recycling dead plant and animal matter. Some conservationists say that picking too many wild mushrooms may interfere with fungi reproduction, disrupting its ability to carry out these essential tasks, as well as depriving invertebrates of an important food source.
It was with these concerns in mind that I joined thirty or so foragers at Railway Fields Nature Reserve, Queen’s Wood and Alexandra Palace Park for the 26th annual Grand Haringey Fungus Foray in 2016. The free event was organised by the London Natural History Society, and led by expert mycologist and botanist Dr Mark Spencer, which helped to put my mind at ease.
It was a different way to experience the woods. Instead of looking upwards to the changing leaves, I learnt to comb the land, eyes and nose to the ground, on the hunt for hidden treasure in the leaf litter, under rotting logs and beneath sturdy tree trunks.
I was astounded by the variety, beauty and downright weirdness of some of our finds:
- A tree stump glowing with yellow Sulphur Tufts, which Mark described as: ‘not a killer, but an up-all-nighter’;
- A Blushing Bracket welded onto a mossy branch, whose underside contained myriads of labyrinthine grooves, and which turned from cream to russet when gently pressed;
- A cluster of edible Trooping Funnels;
- Some violet hued Wood Blewits;
- A selection of Waxcaps in bright yellow, red and orange;
- A Giant Puffball, which to my surprise, was edible;
- A rare Flame Shield (we didn’t pick that one);
- A trio of Glistening Inkcaps;
- A log festooned in an inky black fungus called Witch’s Butter.
Someone even found that most iconic of inedible fungi, a Fly Agaric (otherwise known as a fairy toadstool), in Alexandra Park. And with beginner’s luck on my side, I found the catch of the day: a Hen of the Woods at the base of an oak tree in Queen’s Wood. On Mark’s instructions, I removed just a third, leaving enough behind to provide food for insects and allow the organism to spore.
Back at Railway Fields, we enjoyed some of the (edible) fruits of our labour. The hen of the woods was delicious fried in butter with a side portion of trooping funnels, rounded off with a few slices of giant puffball, which tasted vaguely like halloumi cheese.
The following day, I met with David Bevan, the man who initiated the Foray all those years ago, long before the recent frenzy for fungi foraging took off, and I asked him about my concerns.
According to David, the main problem is caused by illegal commercial picking, which involves ‘vanloads of foragers sent in to Epping Forest and the New Forest to strip the woodland floor bare of fungi’. By contrast, expert-led forays like the one in Haringey are unlikely to have much impact because they only happen once a year and don’t involve a complete sweep.
‘I think you have to balance the fact that it switches many people onto fungi and might inspire future mycologists against the worry that you might pick too many,’ he said.
I haven’t become an expert mycologist yet, but the event certainly ‘switched me onto fungi’. I haven’t picked a wild mushroom since though, and I won’t do so again – that is until (fingers crossed) next year’s Grand Haringey Fungus Foray comes around…
Have you ever been foraging? What are your favourite wild foods to gather and do you think that fungi foraging is different to other sorts of foraging?