Monday, 15 December 2014

Of mushrooms and mosses

I am often asked what is the difference between mushrooms and toadstools. The fact is, there is no simple answer. The word 'mushroom' is generally reserved for edible fungi and, as I have mentioned before, 'toadstool' may come from the German words tod - death, and stuhl stool. However, it is probably just a fanciful name - a stool for toads to sit upon. But interestingly, toads were always regarded as poisonous in the Middle Ages and a rather nasty, mildly toxic, fluid oozes from the warts on a toad's back if it is roughly handled.

Prithee, Tony, what led you down this train of thought?

Strolling through Stefen Leys Pocket Park earlier today I chanced upon a couple of common but interesting fungus specimens. Both were edible, but many people wouldn't apply the word 'mushroom' to them. 

Shaggy Parasol, Macrolepiota rhacodes, var hortensis
Stefen Leys Pocket Park, Daventry. 15 December, 2014
The first was the Shaggy Parasol, Macrolepiota rhacodes. The variety photographed is var. hortensis. This is edible and tasty although some people have reported a mild gastric upset after a plate of them. Here it was, late in the year, beneath trees in the pocket park, surrounded by the bright green leaves of Herb Robert.

Although this species is easily identifiable from the patchy appearance of the cap, it is generally a good idea to look underneath to check the form and colour of the gills. These were as anticipated and the smell of the whole fungus was mild and mushroomy.
Pleurotus ostreatus, Oyster Mushroom. Stefen Leys
Pocket Park, Daventry  15 December, 2014

The Oyster Mushroom, Pleurotus ostreatusis common and also edible. Yes, it is called a mushroom, but its cap does not have the disc shape of the Common Mushroom; as it generally grows from the trunk of a tree this is understandable. The group I found were in an ideal condition for gathering and eating but, as they were at the base of a tree adjacent to a footpath, I refrained. Something about dogs...

I was able to get a decent photograph of the gills.

This late in the season I might, in ancient or even reasonably mature woodland, have found other fungi, but beyond the two species photographed I noted only a few more specimens, shriveled or nibbled beyond recognition. However, that is not to say that evidence of their presence was lacking.

At the edge of the site, hard by a garden fence, stood a cherry tree. It was in a bad way, the condition of the lower trunk showing that its days were numbered. The damage demonstrated a classic case of attack by Honey Fungus, Armillaria mellea. It is sometimes called the Boot-lace Fungus and I know that, had I probed the ground nearby I would have found the hyphae (vaguely equivalent to roots in a real plant) like black bootlaces snaking through the soil.

Although the trees were now devoid of leaves a Jay, screaming in the tree-tops, defeated my search for it. This handsome member of the Crow Family is far more often heard than seen.

That left mosses. The bryophyte flora was very limited and, although a hands and knees posture with a Sherlock Holmes-type magnifying glass would probably have paid dividends, I held my enthusiasm in check and contented myself with very obvious species.

Tortula muralis at Stefen Leys Pocket Park,
Daventry. 15 December. 2014

The Wall Screw-moss, Tortula muralis, is abundant in rural areas on stonework, walls and neglected footpaths everywhere. I found it at the edge of a concrete path. Mundane, yes; unattractive, no. There are certainly more striking mosses but a careful examination of its features will reveal the delicate form of the leaves with a rather long hair-point at the tip. It beats watching 'Strictly...' [Everything beats watching 'Strictly...' Ed.]

This next moss is, I believe, Kindbergia praelonga.  Known as Common Feather-moss it is indeed extremely common but I was rather fortunate in finding a patch with abundant capsules, for these fruiting structures are not often seen.

Kindbergia praelonga from Stefen Leys Pocket Park,
Daventry. 15 December, 2014

I brought a sample home and was able to obtain a marginally better photograph which tends to confirm my original identification.

There were a few other mosses about but I know my limitations. Perhaps I'll have another look at them sometime. Anyway, it was a dull day in mid-December; not the most auspicious of times to be out in a patch of urban parkland, so I was content with my findings. As Del Boy would have said, "Multum in parvo my son" - and in a way it was

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