The importance of foraging

The importance of foraging. It has become fashionable in recent years for conservation minded people to criticise the act of foraging. “It’s rapeing the countryside”, “there are gangs of commercial foragers pillaging our forests” and so on. Look but don’t touch is their mantra. I have grown up with this mantra for over forty years but far seeing a blossoming of nature around me there has been a steady, if not rapid decline. We have all heard the dire warnings from the likes of David Attenborough and Chris Packham. The State of Nature Report highlighted how much we have lost in the last 100 years or so (but mostly in the last forty years). 80% of woodland, 90% of lowland meadows, 95% of heathland, 70% of flying insects and so on.

The increasing spread of urbanisation is disconnecting the public from nature. The “look don’t touch” mantra even more so. On top of this, the idea of SSSI’s and nature reserves creates the impression that the rest of nature is unimportant. Only these special places are worthy of the utmost care.

We need to reconnect people with nature. It is all around us if we only stop and look. Foraging is one of the best ways to reconnect. It makes you aware of the nature on your doorstep. It makes you value the ordinary.  Some of the best and most nutritious plants to forage are the much demonised weeds of gardens – nettles, dandelions, cleavers, plantain and chickweed. These are not in anyway endangered but when you start to forage your local patch becomes a valuable resource which you want to thrive.

When you let these plants grow you create your very own “wilderness”. You learn that these “weeds” are not just a tasty food for you but a valuable resource for a whole host of wildlife – bees, butterflies, beetles, spiders, birds, small mammals and even slugs and snails.

To put it bluntly, foraging teaches you to appreciate the importance of every bit of nature, not just the rare and endangered. Where do the mushrooms come into this I hear you ask? Here is an interview I did for the East Anglian Daily Times about mushroom foraging and the importance of fungi in all ecosystems.


First Mushroom Foraging Course 2018

Had great day taking a lovely group of people around Tiger Hill. Lots of mushrooms out at the moment, boletes, brittle gills, parasols, grisetes, blushers but the best find yesterday was the hen in the woods.

Hen in the Woods
Hen in the woods photo op

If you would like to join me, there are still some places on our Mushroom Foraging Courses later this autumn. Just follow the link to book your place.

Foraging is not just for the day, it’s for the rest of your life.

Summer Mushroom Foraging in Scotland

I spent an enjoyable few days foraging in Scotland at the end of July with one of Scotland’s top foraging experts, Monica Wilde. We toured the length and breadth of the country in search of fungal treats. Despite the hot weather and low rainfall, both unusual events, even in the middle of Summer in Scotland, we found a decent haul of Chanterelles and the first Penny Buns of the season.

Chanterelle and Penny Bun basket
Basket of Chanterelle, Penny Buns and herbs in the Scottish sunshine

I was also lucky enough to find a few mushrooms that are new to me and only found in the north of the UK. The most beautiful were the pure white Angel’s Wings. This is considered an edible mushroom in some parts of the world but a recent bumper crop in Japan led to a number of deaths from overindulgence. All the people that died were suffering from kidney disease before they ate the mushrooms. Edible or not it is still a beautiful mushroom to see and the first time for me.

Angels Wings, Pleurocybella porrigens
Angels Wings on a moss covered conifer log
Angels Wings, Pleurocybella porrigens
Angels Wings on a moss covered conifer log

Another first was finding the Deadly Webcap. There is no controversy over edibility of this mushroom. It contains the toxin orellanin which causes permanent damage to the kidneys. To the inexperienced or wishful forager it bears a vague resemblance to a Chanterelle but the presence of gills and orange-brown colour should be obvious differences to separate the two.

Deadly Webcap
The Deadly Webcap growing in moss on the forest floor
Cortinarius specioissimus
Deadly Webcap, Cortinarius specioissimus, in the Scottish sunshine

Also new to me was a yellow form Plums and Custard. In the south of the UK Plums and Custard is Tricholomopsis rutilans which has a plum red cap and yellow cap and stem, but we found Tricholomopsis decora which has a dingy yellow cap instead. Both species grow on the same habitat, old conifer stumps.

Plums and Custard
Plums and Custard, Tricholomopsis decora,
Plums and Custard
Plums and Custard, Tricholomopsis decora, on conifer stump

But the best of these new mushrooms was my first Chaga, Inontus obliquus. This is a prized medicinal fungus which is found on Birch trees in northern temperate forests. It has been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years, in North America, Siberia and Scandinavia. In Britain it is most common in the North. It is unusual in that the part of the mushroom harvested is not the spore producing structure of the mushroom, which is hidden under the bark of the Birch tree. The part harvested is a sclerotia, an irregular shaped lump that breaks out of the bark of the tree and, over time, grows into a horn shaped protuberance. The surface of the sclerotia is covered by a hard, black, clinker-like shell and the inside is golden brown with the texture of stale, crumbly, chocolate cake.

Inonotus obliquus
Chaga sclerotia sprouting from a Silver Birch
Chaga sclerotia
A sclerotia of Chaga showing it’s horn like growth form
Young Chaga
Young Chaga sclerotia breaking out of Birch Tree

As well as the Chaga, the Birch trees also had two other prized medicinal mushrooms. The Tinder Hoof, Fomes fomentarius, is a hoof shaped, grey polypore. It has a very hard shell of chitin and tough leather flesh. The Birch Polypore in contrast pale cream with a rounded and flattened shape. It has tough rubbery flesh. Both of these mushrooms were carried by Otzi, the ice man when he was killed in the Alps thousands of years ago. We found them growing on the same tree.

Hoof and Polypore on birch
Fomes Fomentarius and Piptoporus betulina growing on the same tree

Here is a very happy forager with a basket full of Chaga

Foraging Chaga
A happy Monica Wilde with a basket of Chaga

The River Runs Through Us: Coastal Foraging Walk at Wrabness

Film maker James Ravinet made a short film of the Foraging Walk I led for The River Runs Through Us project along the River Stour, the Essex Suffolk border. You can see the film here

Foragers Feast Mushroom Foraging dates

Booking for our mushroom foraging courses are now live on Suffolk Market Events Foraging page. Held at Tiger Hill, a Local Nature Reserve, in the beautiful tranquility of deepest Suffolk. With over 250 species recorded at Tiger Hill, if you want to get to grips with the world of fungi, this is the course for you. From exquisite edibles and miraculous medicines to terrible toxics, the wide variety of fungi is there to discover.

Foraging Courses

Spring Foraging mushroom goodness

It’s been a cold wet start to the year but at long last the ground is warming up and the birds are singing again. So I took myself off to the woods for the first serious foraging this spring. In early Spring after lots of rain you can always rely on Wood Ear mushrooms to pop out of the elders and they didn’t let me down.

Wood Ear Mushrooms
Wood Ear mushrooms on a standing Elder tree

Wood Ears, Auricularia auricula-judae,  are a really good edible mushroom, popular in most South East Asian countries. With their crunchy texture and savoury flavour they are great in soups, stews, sauces and stir fries. They also make great jelly sweets. Soak them in fruit juice or your favourite liqueur then coat them in chocolate or candy them. Studies have shown Wood Ears to be beneficial to the enzyme activity of the pancreas and to glycogen metabolism in the liver. This leads to better control of hypoglycaemia and diabetes. It has strong anti-bacterial properties and was used traditionally in Scotland in a decoction to treat sore throats.

Wood Ear Mushrooms
Wood Ear Mushrooms on a fallen Elder

I was pleasantly surprised to find fresh growth of another much sought after medicinal mushroom, Many-zoned Polypore aka Turkey Tails, Trametes versicolor. There were three fallen trees covered in this, a sycamore, a pine and an ash.

Turkey Tails
Many-zoned Polypore on a Sycamore stump

Many-zoned Polypore is not generally considered a culinary mushroom. In North America it has traditionally been used as a kind of chewing gum. Fresh young brackets when chewed have a sweetish mushroom flavour that gets stronger as you chew it. Made as a decoction it makes a similar tasting tea. Many-zoned Polypore has been shown to have strong anti-cancer properties. Several drugs are made from extracts of the mushroom in China and Japan, under the names PSP and PSK, and used alongside chemo- and radio-therapy to improve patients recovery.

Wet weather favours the jelly fungi so it was no surprise to see Witches Butter, Exidia glandulosa, and it’s close relative Exidia nucleata. These were growing on the same ash twig.

Witches Butter
Jelly Fungi on an Ash twig

As well as the mushrooms there were signs of woodland flowers. Primroses were in full bloom, but a little battered by the rain. Primroses are a pleasant spring vegetable. The young leaves can be used raw in salads along with the flowers. Older leaves can be cooked like spinach. The flowers are used to make a traditional country wine.

A bed of Primroses, flowers dropping under the weight of the rain

A speciality of damp woods is the easily overlooked Moschatel. This is just forming the flower buds that give the plant it’s other name Town Hall Clock.  it is also edible and probably best used as a salad herb. It has a pleasant but mild taste.

Town Hall Clock
Moschatel just coming into flower

Care should be taken not to muddle Moschatel with the Wood Anemone which grows in the same habitat and bears a passing resemblance to it. As part of the Buttercup family Wood Anemones are toxic.

Wind Flowers
Wood Anemones, the flowers waiting for some sun before they open.

In drier areas there were plenty of the more common edibles to forage, young Nettle tops, Chickweed, Red Dead-nettles, Cleavers, Cow Parsley and the first Hogweed shoots.

Young Nettle tips ripe for picking

In the coming weeks Spring is going to race ahead. We will soon see an abundance of good edible plants and some choice mushrooms too.

Chickweed & Red Dead Nettle
A bed of Chickweed with Red Dead-Nettles

If you would like to discover more about foraging why not join us on one of our Spring Foraging workshops 

Devilish goings on in the Essex woods

It’s been a remarkable summer for mushrooms in the UK with rare and strange mushrooms popping up all over. I came across one today that I thought I would have to travel to the far south west to see. It’s a mushroom from the other side of the world, Australia and the Pacific, growing wild in the woods of north Essex.

Devil’s Fingers, Clathrus archeri
Devil’s Fingers, Clathrus archeri

It is called the Devil’s Fingers. Five blood red curving arms erupt from a small egg of jelly. The black gobbets are the spores waiting to attract flies to carry them off. The egg is quite small, about the size of a cherry.

Devil’s Fingers egg

Devil’s Fingers are loosely related to our native Stinkhorn Fungus, which also grows from a jelly egg.

Stinkhorn, Phallus impudicus

Like the stinkhorn, devil’s fingers mimics the smell of rotting meat which attracts the flies which disperse it’s spores.

collapsed Devil’s Fingers
Devil’s Fingers erupting from it’s egg

Mini-autumn in July brings mushrooms part 2

The cool damp weather has spurred another group of mushrooms into life, the boletes. This is a group of mushrooms that are easily recognised because they have pores rather than gills. Boletes are mycorrhizal fungi usually growing associated with particular types of tree, though some associate with other woody plants such as heather and rock roses.

In north Essex oak is a common mycorrhizal partner and most of the boletes this week were found with oak. One of the most impressive is the Oldrose Bolete, with the grand name Imperator rhodopurpureus. This is a large mushroom with a dull red cap, bright orange pores and a bulbous yellow stem covered with a fine red reticulum (a network of red veins). All parts stain strongly blue when bruised. This is a relatively rare mushroom mostly from the south of the UK

Oldrose Bolete, Imperator rhodopurpureus, bursting out of the ground

Another of the large boletes around at the moment is the Rooting Bolete, Caloboletus radicans, This is a firm fleshed mushroom with a buff grey cap and bright yellow pores and stem. The stem and pores bruise blue. This mushroom has a very bitter and sour taste.

Rooting Bolete, Caloboletus radicans

Another common bolete found with oak in north Essex is the Chestnut Bolete, Gyroporus castanea, a small bolete with a chestnut coloured cap and stem and creamy white pores. The stem has hollow chamber within it. This is a very sweet tasting mushroom with a flavour reminiscent of sweet cured bacon. Because of it’s size and colour it is not easy to spot amongst the fallen leaves.

Chestnut Bolete, Gyroporus castanea, cap view
Chestnut Bolete, Gyroporus castanea, showing pores

There are a large number of similar looking small boletes that I generally refer to as Butter Boletes. This is because they have butter coloured flesh with a soft buttery texture. The commonest is one known to foragers as the Red Cracked Bolete, which is now known to be two species, Xerocomellus cisalpinus which grows with broad leaved trees and Xerocomllus chrysenteron which grows almost only with conifers. Both have a dull brown cap cracking to reveal a red layer below. The pores are yellow becoming greenish as the spores are released. In both the stem is flushed with red but in X. cisalpinus the top of the stem is bright yellow. Both bruise blue but X. cisalpinus bruises a much darker colour.

Xerocomellus cisalpinus velvety brown cap
Xerocomellus cisalpinus showing pores and stem

A closely related species which lacks the red between the cracks in the cap and is yellow instead is the Sepia Bolete, Xerocomellus porosporus, The stem is a grey brown colour with a red ring near the top and a yellow zone above this. It bruises blue especially in the pores.

Sepia Boletes, Xerocomellus porosporus

A very similar looking mushroom to the Red Cracked Boletes, identical but lacking any brown colour, is  the Ruby Bolete, Hortiboletus rubellus,  which has a red cap instead of brown and a red stem. It is found with a variety of broad leaved trees.

Ruby Bolete, Hortiboletus rubellus, cap
Ruby Bolete, Hortiboletus rubellus, pores and stem

Last of the Butter Boletes around now is the Suede Bolete, Xerocomus subtomentosus. This can be found with both broad leaved and coniferous trees. It has a brown cap and a tapering yellow stem and dull yellow pores bruising pale blue.

Suede Bolete, Xerocomus subtomentosus

A very striking rare bolete found with oak is the Crimson Bolete, Chalciporus rubinus. This has a brown cap and crimson pores and stem. The base of the stem has bright yellow mycelial threads trailing into the ground.

Ruby Bolete, Chalciporus rubbings, cap
Ruby Bolete, Chalciporus rubinus, showing how it got it’s name

Lastly, is another strikingly coloured mushroomy the Scarletina Bolete, Neoboletus luridiformis. This is a very variable coloured mushroom which ranges from dark brown to bright yellow in colour. The usual form here in Essex is a dark brown cap and yellow stem coveredwith red scales or spots. The pores are orange. The whole mushroom rapidly bruises dark blue when bruised or cut.

Scarletina Bolete, Neoboletus luridiformis

Mini-autumn in July brings mushrooms part 1

We’ve finally had a decent amount of rain in the days around last Friday’s perigee of the moon. Temperatures have dropped a good 10ºC and it’s feeling a lot like autumn outside. And the mushrooms have responded. They have been coming out in drips and drops since the perigee in June, which was a supermoon, but this week they are out in force.

There are loads of parasols, Macrolepiota procure, and shaggy parasols, Chlorosplenium rachodes, and a whole host of different Agaricus (field mushroom family) and boletes (pored mushrooms).

Parasol, Macrolepiota procera

Everyone knows a field mushroom when they see one but there are nearly 50 species in this family in the UK. The field mushroom, Agaricus campestris, is just one of many very similar looking mushrooms.

Field Mushroom, Agaricus campestris

But this week I have been finding the field mushrooms bigger and more aromatic cousin the Horse Mushroom, Agaricus arvensis. These are distinguished by their “cog-wheel ring” and sweet almond smell when young. As with all Agaricus, rub the bottom of the stem to release the odour.

Horse Mushrooms, Agaricus arvensis, showing the “cog-wheel” ring

The gills of the Horse Mushroom start off a greyish brown colour and are never the bright pink of the young Field Mushroom.

Horse Mushroom, showing the gills

Closely related to the Horse Mushroom and often confused with it is Agaricus fissuratus. This has all the features of the Horse Mushroom but the cap tends to turn a brassy yellow colour as it matures. You can see the yellow colour developing on the buttons in the picture below.

Agaricus fissuratus with the yellow colour of the cap developing

Probably the most distinctive of the almond smelling Agaricus is The Prince, Agaricus augustus. The Prince has the brassy yellow colour of Agaricus fissuratus to the cap but is also covered in orangey-brown scales. The stem is pure white and is covered in fluffy white scales, especially when young. It grows to a large size, often 20cm or more across when mature.

The Prince, Agaricus augustus

Living near the Essex coast we get a lot of the Salty Mushroom, Agaricus bernardii, so called because it grows near the sea, but is spreading inland along road verge due to salting in winter. This is a dense, stocky mushroom, often with a lumpy, irregular shape. It is white, but tends to turn dull and grey with age. The cap often cracks into irregular blocky scales. It has a fibrous almost fluffy ring.

Salty Mushroom, Agaricus bernardii
Salty Mushroom, Agaricus bernardii, showing the fibrous ring

A woodland relative of the Field Mushroom is the Scaly Wood Mushroom, Agaricus langei. This mushroom is found in woods, hedgerows and parks wherever there are trees and shrubs. It is similar to the Field Mushroom in size in having a cap covered in small brown scales. The flesh flesh readily turns red, fading to brown, when cut or bruised. It has a pleasant mushroomy smell.

Scaly Wood Mushroom, Agaricus langei
scaly Wood Mushroom, Agaricus langei, showing gills and stem

Lastly, and only just starting to appear for the first time this year is the Yellow Stainer, Agaricus xanthodermus. This often grows in large numbers and is the main cause of mushroom poisoning in the UK. It is a bright white mushroom (fading to dingy grey when old) that is easily spotted due to the whiteness and abundance. It’s flesh turns a bright, highlighter pen yellow, when bruised. This colour change is only temporary so you need to watch the mushroom for a few minutes to see it develop and then fade away. The speed of the reaction varies with humidity and age of the mushroom. The Yellow Stainer also has a distinctive inky smell because of the toxic phenol it contains. This is best smelt by rubbing the stem base, which is also the best way to see the yellow staining reaction. The ones in the picture below are still very young, no bigger than cherries, but they grow to about the same size as the horse mushroom.

Yellow Stainers, Agaricus xanthoderma. See the scratch mark on the larger cap cap beginning to turn yellow

Mushroom Foraging May 2017

This week we had the first proper rain of the year and what a difference it has made. The last time we had any fungi in the woods was back in February.  This is what I found today.

Wood Ears, Auricularia auricula-judae, was the most abundant. They react quickly to heavy rain. Wood Ears are a very good edible mushroom with a subtle peppery taste that adds a savouriness to dishes and a crunchy texture like slice of cucumber. They are popular in Chinese cuisine as they are good for the digestion and act as a probiotic in the gut. They are most common on old Elder bushes, Sambucus nigra.but they were also growing on  Holly, Ilex europea, which is a first for meand on Ash, Fraxinus excelsior.On the same Ash tree, on the other side of the trunk, was some White Brain, Exidia thuretiana.I found a close relative of the Wood Ears, Tripe Fungus, Auricular mesenterica, growing on a dead Alder trunk, Alnus glutinosus. This is also a good edible though not as common as the Wood Ears but can be used in the same sort of dishes.On a fallen Oak branch, Quercus rober, was a fresh flush of Many-zoned Polypore, Coriolus versicolor, known as Turkey Tails in North America. This is a medicinal mushroom. A number of drugs used in cancer treatment are made from extracts of this mushroom. In North America the native Americans used fresh Turkey Tails as a chewing gum.One of the reasons I went out today was to see how this Chicken of the Woods had developed. Five days ago it looked like this.With the rain over the last few days, it has turned into this.Chicken of the Woods, Laetiporus sulphureus, is another popular edible mushroom. It has a very meaty texture like succulent chicken breast with a lemony flavour. It can be used in any recipe as a substitute for chicken breast.

On an Elder were the small orangey dots of Coral Spot Fungus, Nectria peziza. Walking through the woods the distinct smell of rotting flesh brought this Stinkhorn, Phallus impudicus, to my attention. This mushroom imitates this smell to attract houseflies and bluebottles which it uses to disperse it’s spores in the same way as plants use insects to disperse pollen.Finally I returned to the tree where I had seen the slime mould back in February, which looked like this then as it munched it’s way through some Toothed Crust.

Today, four months later the same slime mould has completely devoured the Toothed Crust, Basidioradulum radula, and has started  to sporulate and looks like this.It is most likely a Badhamia species with it’s fruit bodies hanging like bunches of grapes.This is what is left of the Toothed Crust.I didn’t expect to see this slime mould still developing on the same oak branch after all this time.