Mushrooms that glow in the dark, drive you mad, taste like apricots or grow to enormous proportions, plus a cautionary tale or two … you can find them all here. I’ve selected these seven wild mushrooms based entirely on how interesting they are.
But before we begin, a note of caution. While some of these mushrooms are edible and all have been eaten under one circumstance or another, two of these mushrooms should be considered poisonous and a third triggers allergic reactions in some people.
The list below is provided solely for interest; if you actually want to eat any of the edible mushrooms listed here, it is imperative that you educate yourself on wild mushrooms first using a good guide book at the very least. There are many deadly wild mushrooms and mushroom identification is tricky for the interested amateur. Don’t take any chances if you value your life, or feel that you want all your internal organs in working order. This article does not give enough information to identify these mushrooms; it’s merely a jumping-off point for further research.
Anyway enough of that … let’s count down the seven most interesting common (in the UK, Europe and much of the US) wild mushrooms.
7. Wax CapsWax caps are edible in theory, but I’m including them in this list really just because of their appearance. Remember those fairy story books that you saw when you were a whippersnapper, the ones with pictures of brightly-colored mushrooms shaped like wizard’s hats? Wax caps actually look like that. They are often to be found growing on fragrant upland pastures; I first came across them on the slopes of Kinder Scout, a hill in Derbyshire, England. Growing here and there in the grass were mushrooms of the most vibrant colors I have ever seen; bright red, purple, green and orange. Marvellous little things. They actually looked too beautiful to eat. Sadly I can’t find a good photo of the wizard’s-hat-shaped purple waxcap; but be sure to check out this marvellous page.
6. Parasol MushroomParasol mushrooms are sort of the labrador of mushrooms. They’re fine, handsome, good-sized mushrooms. Oddly they have a movable double ring structure attached to the stem somewhat below the cap; you can move it up and down the stem. The really great thing about them, however, is their taste. They are seriously delicious, a lot like supermarket mushrooms but far tastier and more mushroomy. For me, the only other mushroom that rivals their taste is the horse mushroom, or perhaps large-capped common mushrooms grown on really good old pastures. You simply cannot buy taste of this deliciousness in supermarkets.
According to Wikipedia, Macrolepiota procera is often eaten in central Europe coated in breadcrumbs. Sounds delicious, although it’s also good just fried in a little oil or butter. Parasol mushrooms are fairly common and relatively easy to identify (but take note of the warnings above if you intend to eat them). The latin species name, procera, means ‘high’ apparently; somehow I always though it meant ‘delicious’. Both would be appropriate, since the common parasol grows to a pretty good size. There’s even something about its appearance to my mind that suggests it’d be darn good fried.
5. Honey FungusWhile the luminous Jack-o-Lantern mushroom can be found in parts of the US, Europe lacks any actual luminous mushrooms as far as I know (if you know different, please let me know!!). But honey fungus is a good substitute. Honey fungus is a hideously invasive fungus that infects trees, killing them slowly as its black bootlace-like mycelia spreads throughout the wood. You can frequently find these ‘bootlaces’ growing in dead wood in woodlands. The marvellous thing about it (and I regret to say that I have yet to witness this myself, in spite of a number of nocturnal expeditions with this purpose in mind) is that the bootlaces render the surrounding wood luminous. Apparently during World War II entire lumber yards sometimes had to be covered over to prevent German bombers from spotting the glow and bombing them. Honey fungus periodically sprouts edible honey-colored mushrooms; as with all mushrooms, most of the actual fungus consists of the root-like mycelia of the organism, but mushrooms pop up periodically to disperse spores for the sake of reproduction. The mushrooms are said to be fairly tasty, but a little rich and liable to trigger indigestion in some people. Eat cautiously. Again I’ve never tried them myself (so much to do and so little time!), but I’d be interested to hear your reports if you have.
If you spot this fungus growing in your garden – panic! Your trees’ days are numbered.
4. Fly AgaricYou’ve seen the fly agaric. It’s that white-spotted red mushroom beloved of fairy-tale books. It grows all over the world and tends to be associated with birch tress. Don’t eat this one! It’s poisonous. But its poisonous nature takes a very interesting form, and because of that, the fly agaric has possibly the most interesting of histories among all the mushrooms.
Fly agaric contains a mixture of rather poisonous substances. If eaten, sleep results (or death if you’ve taken too much!). The eater wakes from his sleep in a state of high energy, even frenzy, all his senses heightened. Mind you, other reports suggest the intoxication resembles drunkenness. Either way, the state is accompanied by hideous stomach pains. Interestingly there seems to be a way of preparing fly agaric so that the stomach pains do not occur; the precise method is a matter of some debate in places like Erowid.org (this is a particularly interesting page). No-one seems to be able to find a method that works consistently. If I had to guess — and I’ve never been so crazy as to actually try this myself — a very slow roasting might be the key. Or not.
Reputedly the Vikings got ‘high’ on fly agaric before descending upon a village to rape, steal and plunder. Reindeer are also known to seek out and eat this plant, and to become intoxicated on it. Apparently the intoxicating principles are improved somewhat by a pass through the metabolism, and certain native ‘shamans’ collect and drink reindeer piss (urggh!), or even each other’s urine, so that they can get high.
Fly agaric attracts and kills flies, which is probably where its common name comes from. While we’re on the subject of killing things, in the event that you do decide to sample this mushroom yourself (and I’m not recommending it!), be aware that the fly agaric is a member of the Amanita genus, which contains some of the most deadly of mushrooms. Confuse a fly agaric with a panther cap, for instance, and you may well die. Death by amanita is not pleasant. You may feel fine for 48 hours or more; then you’ll become intensely ill, suffering terrible pain. Then you’ll recover, only to fall ill again. Eventually your liver will be destroyed, and you’ll die.
Bearing that happy thought in mind, we come to two of the most interesting uses of fly agaric for those of us who value our health.
In small pea-sized quantities, fly agaric has apparently been used in some parts of the world (and perhaps still is) as a way of keeping warm. Taken in small amounts, it apparently causes a sort of improvement in the circulation, with a feeling of warmth in the extremities. But take too much too often and you might end up with a red face, perhaps like that of an alcoholic. It’s also a flavor enhancer for meat, and supposedly the effect is quite dramatic. This is something I’d be interested to try myself; if I get round to it I’ll report back here.
As a side-note, the banker and mushroom researcher Gordon Wasson believed the fly agaric to be the main ingredient in “soma”, the intoxicating substance over which the ancient Indian Rigveda verses wax lyrical. The theory seems a tenuous one; indeed it seems as though the nature of “soma” may well even have changed over the years. If any mushrooms could seriously be considered as an ingredient of soma, it would surely be the mushroom that occupies number 1. on our list.
3. ChanterelleThe chanterelle is the darling of French chefs, and not a few English ones. You can often even find it in supermarkets these days, and it’s frequently sold from market stalls on the Continent. In appearance it’s a little orange mushrooms with not much of a stem, and you can often find it growing in pine or birch forests, where it has a particular affinity for moss. You have to search quite carefully, peering closely at mossy patches and even parting the moss to find the mushrooms. I found it myself in a pine forest in Scotland, but to be honest I wasn’t all that impressed with the taste. I think part of the problem was that I’d followed the standard advice to cook it in milk. Let’s get this straight: no mushroom tastes good cooked in milk, unless you’re a “gourmet”, in which case you’ll probably eat anything as long as it’s weird and cooked funny. I advise frying the things, frankly. The fresh mushroom has an excellent apricot-like scent, but mushroomy at the same time. Even just thinking of the smell makes me feel like I’m in a pine forest. Worth seeking out, if only because they are such beautiful little mushrooms.
Now, herein hangs a cautionary tale. In 2008, British author Nicholas Evans (author of The Horse Whisperer) collected a bunch of chanterelles for dinner, together with his wife. Unfortunately, he accidentally collected some poisonous Cortinarius mushrooms at the same time, thinking they were chanterelles — to which they bear a superficial resemblance. Mr. Evans unfortunately served the mushrooms at a meal to several of his relatives. While the children present fortunately declined the mushrooms, the adults tucked into them, and as a result three of them — including Mr. Evans himself — lost the use of their kidneys. They are now on dialysis and are awaiting transplants. Mr. Evans says that he no longer urinates, ever — but he has wonderful dreams where he does; awaking only to find sadly that his kidneys aren’t working after all. While Evans clearly made a terrible mistake, hats off to him for maintaining a sense of humor about it. Hopefully his relatives are still speaking to him!
If you take the time to learn about mushrooms, the chanterelle is actually quite distinctive and not easy to mistake for Cortinarius. But take a few shortcuts, or collect them after a glass of wine or two — and you can wave bye-bye to Mr. and Mrs. Kidney — if you’re lucky.
2. Giant PuffballThere are lots of different kinds of puffball, and most of them are edible when young. When old, they turn green and horrible inside, eventually bursting open like alien eggs to release a creature that attaches itself to your face. Just kidding; actually they release clouds of greenish-brown spores. The spores have apparently been used in stage productions to produce ‘explosions’; a good cloud of them can be ignited to produce a brief flash of flame. When young, puffball flesh is firm and white; I sometimes like to toast them over open fires, marshmallow-style. But I suspect they taste better fried. I’ve singled out the giant puffball here because of its enormous size. They can grow as big as footballs and even bigger. I recall once finding one growing in some tall grass by the side of a football pitch. Richard Mabey, the wild foods author, suggests slicing them horizontally, rubbing with olive oil and grilling. There is said to be considerable variation in texture and taste between different horizontal layers of the mushroom.
While giant puffballs aren’t rare, you don’t see them all that often either — at least not in the places I’ve been. So maybe it’s best to let them mature and disperse their spores. Having said that, its almost inevitable that some fool will kick them before they’ve reached that point, at least in England where children often seem to have almost a witch-finding attitude to giant puffballs. “Kill it! Kill the beast!”.
1. Psilocybe — The “Magic” MushroomFinally we come to what is undoubtedly the most curious and fascinating genus of mushroom. If you — quite rightly — wish to remain sane, probably you’ll feel that these mushrooms aren’t interesting at all. But you’d be wrong.
The psilocybe genus contains various mushrooms, from the common small brown ones found growing prolifically on wet hillsides in Wales and elsewhere, to the golden saucer-like mushrooms found in the Amazonian forest. Many, or perhaps all, of them are psychoactive. When eaten in sufficient quantity, they produce a state of mind that really cannot be fully described. Nevertheless I’ll give it a go, and for more information you might want to check out my article on psychosis. Note: Fascinating Experiments does not condone or recommend drug use.
Arguments rage over whether the psilocybe mushrooms have a genuine history of use among human beings. Certainly as a species we’ve been altering our minds in various ways for a long time (as do many animals); yet it’s unclear whether the widespread use of ‘magic’ mushrooms is an old tradition revived, or a modern phenomenon. American author and mesmerizing speaker Terence McKenna did much to promote the idea that magic mushrooms have a history of ancient usage by humanity, but let’s face it, McKenna was off his head and at one point believed the magic mushroom to be some kind of space alien.
My own acquaintance with these interesting fungi goes back to around 2003, after a clerk in the British Home Office was inspired to reply to enquiries saying that fresh magic mushrooms could be legally sold in the UK. I learned this from an odd chap I somehow got talking to in Leicester Square, London. He explained that magic mushrooms were being sold openly and freely throughout London, and indeed it proved to be the case. After a little research I discovered that magic mushrooms contain a non-toxic substance that binds temporarily to certain receptors in the brain. It’s impossible to physically poison yourself with these mushrooms (provided you identify them correctly!) and contrary to popular myth, they do not fry brain cells. However, their temporary — and in unstable individuals sometimes permanent — effects on the brain are startling.
In the name of science I determined to try these mushrooms myself, so I purchased a punnet of them quite legally (it seemed) from an ‘alternative’ clothes shop in a main street in Cambridge. I happend to be attending an outdoor performance of a Shakespeare play in the grounds of a Cambridge college that evening, and it seemed to me that a few of these mushrooms might considerably liven things up. The mushrooms I had purchased were in fact not strictly mushrooms at all, but a sort of ‘truffle’ that grows underground and resembles moldy hazelnuts. After fasting for a while, I chewed up 14g, washing them down with tea.
On my way into town to meet my friends, I began to feel a little odd. I can’t explain exactly how; the feeling was quite unique and not unpleasant. By the time I had reached town, my arms appeared to be half their usual length and my voice seemed to me to have risen in pitch to sound like a dwarf’s voice. My friends, however, could detect no difference in me to usual. My friends stopped to buy pizza, an event which I found horribly confusing. I decided to remain outside the pizza shop and to concentrate on the twinkling multi-colored stars and rainbows that now appeared everywhere I looked.
Somehow I made it to the college grounds, but not before a homeless man with no teeth had kindly found a discarded plastic bottle and filled it with water from a fountain, after I had told him that I was thirsty. I accepted the bottle so as not to hurt his feelings. I recall him explaining that on no account would he accept money for dental care off his father. When the play commenced, I found that I had no interest in it. It seemed vain and stupid. The black pepper on the pizza that my friends had purchased seemed like ants in my mouth. I made my excuses and wandered off.
Then commenced the most wonderful part of my experience. The tops of the trees surrounding the college garden glowed purple — a most astonishing and beautiful shade of purple — along with greens and browns of many delightful hues. The dead leaves on the path through the trees were an amazing shade of orangey-brown; a shade so enticing that I could have stared at it happily for hours. I walked on to Cambridge market place, which I found to be surrounded by cartoonish houses in the style of Van Gogh. And for the first time, I believed I could begin to honestly regard some of the defects in my own character which I had ignored for so long, to the detriment of those around me. The Barclay’s sign in town glowed a sublime shade of blue, everything else seeming temporarily black-and-white by comparison. I can’t explain or describe the feeling of delight that I took in those amazing colors. Even now I often think of them. Eventually I walked home and gradually the effects subsided.
Altogether the experience was like entering a magical fairytale wonderland, one so beautiful, innocent and charming that I longed to experience it once again.
And yet the next time I took the ‘truffles’, to cut a long story short, I ended up cowering in the center of my living room floor, terrified of everything, trapped in a strange, horrifying world, begging my flatmate and her boyfriend via telephone to come home and talk to me, which bless them, they did.
In retrospect I am grateful for both experiences, although I do not recommend that anyone try these mushrooms — which are after all illegal in most places. Subsequently I moved to Holland, where until a few years ago magic mushrooms were more or less legal and sold openly in large magic mushroom shops. However, all further experiments I made with them resulted neither in my fairytale wonderland nor in terror but merely in pointless weirdness. Today, the magic mushroom shops have been banned in Holland, but ‘truffles’ are still widely available in ‘smart shops’ in every major town. I no longer indulge.
Looking back, I think these mushrooms tend to greatly intensify whatever you’re feeling at the time. Since I love nature and colors, my first experience turned a small woods into a glorious fairytale land. But taken in the comfort and safety of an ordinary house or flat, I simply felt either weird or — when things failed to go smoothly — terrified.
Much of the current popularity of these illegal fungi is, as I mentioned earlier, due to Terence McKenna. McKenna was obsessed with the mushrooms and figured out a simple way to grow them from spores. He had many crazy ideas involving mushrooms and continued to write and speak on the subject until he died of a brain tumor at the young age of 54. McKenna had certainly taken a lot of mushrooms in his life, along with many other psychoactive substances and massive quantities of cannabis. He also appeared to be older than his age, and certain indigenous tribes of the Amazon apparently claim that the mushrooms have an aging effect if taken regularly.
It is said that some people are driven mad by mushroom trips. While the acute effects of these mushrooms could be called a sort of madness in itself, it is a madness that fortunately doesn’t last. Whether or not the active ingredient in these mushrooms, psilocybin, can cause permanent madness is a topic for debate. LSD proponent Timothy Leary was fond of pointing out that many teenagers go loopy due to the stress of their first year at college, so it would be unsurprising if the stress of a bad mushroom ‘trip’ could also trigger latent madness. The jury is still out on whether there is any directly madness-inducing effect of the drug.
Perhaps one of the most potentially-promising uses of this drug — were it not for its highly-illegal status in most countries — is the insight it can give us into what it’s like to be schizophrenic. Schizophrenia is a highly-distressing condition affecting a massive one in one hundred people throughout the world. Some people suggest that all psychiatrists should take magic mushrooms or LSD at least once so as to better understand what life is like for their patients. But then again, psychiatrists — let’s face it — are perhaps mad enough already.
The profoundly weird and interesting effects of these mushrooms on the brain are the reason why I’ve given them the number one spot in the Fascinating Experiments freaky fungi list.
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