Ubiquitous fungi: from tasty snack to athlete's foot
Anyone who has ventured into the woods recently will have seen a huge variety of mushrooms. If you are like me, you have probably identified one or two specimens, taken a snapshot for social media and continued on your merry way.
Yet for such a prolific life form, it is surprising how little we know about it. And so I asked Marie Garnier-Delcourt from the Mycological Society, to tell me all she knew about fungi in the Grand Duchy.
"‘Fungi are neither plant nor animal,"’ said Garnier-Delcourt. "Contrary to what was thought in the past, they are a separate branch in the ... tree of the living world.’’ Indeed, mushrooms form their own kingdom – the Kingdom Fungi.
Unlike their photosynthesising plant cousins, fungi absorb energy by eating - much like us humans. This stretched the limits of my schoolgirl science, as I was slowly making the disturbing connection that, biologically speaking, mushrooms are closer to humans than to plants.
Over the course of their evolution, fungi have developed different strategies to obtain food, Garnier-Delcourt said. Some decompose dead organic matter on the forest floor - nature’s mini recycling centres. Others form close relationships with plants and trees to receive the material they need to survive. In exchange, these fungi help their host, for instance by increasing their growth capacity. A third group is parasitical, feeding on other organisms at their expense.
And then of course, fungi are a food source for humans and other animals, although - apart from confident foragers - the majority of fungi fans forego picking wild mushrooms for fear of it being their last meal.
Assaying some of these preconceptions, Garnier-Delcourt assured me that mushrooms contain varying amounts of essential nutrients. It is true that they also harbour small elements that can upset our digestive system.
‘‘Mushrooms are therefore rather to be considered as a condiment, best eaten in small quantities and always well cooked,” she said.
This explains why some people cannot tolerate the taste of mushrooms and why restaurants don’t offer huge mushroom platters. And with names like Death Cap, Destroying Angel and Funeral Bell, it is easy to understand why the uninitiated are dissuaded from taking a bite of any specimens they cannot identify.
‘‘It's a fact", Garnier-Delcourt says, ‘‘you should not improvise harvesting wild edible mushrooms, contrary to what some magazine articles or internet sites may suggest. The best books can help, but they are not enough. And even less so are applications for smartphones, which you should consider with great caution! I recommend an introduction with a mycologist, as there is real potential for confusion.’’
In addition, she advises not eating edible wild mushrooms too often as they can harbour toxins occurring in their environment. Moreover, ‘‘some raw or undercooked species such as morels, for example, are poisonous.’’
So, must we eye each mushroom we meet suspiciously for the rest of our lives? Well, no. Garnier-Delcourt suggests starting with ‘‘the ‘big’ mushrooms of woods and meadows, which are more familiar’’.
Once you have correctly identified edible mushrooms at a particular location, it is highly likely they will return year after year. Feel free to pick the fungi you find, but be sure to stay within current regulations. These include picking up to 1 kilo per day and a maximum 3 kilos for groups of three or more - regardless of species.
An unknown kingdom
For something so ubiquitous, fungi remain largely misunderstood. ‘‘Mycology is a relatively young science that is still making great strides forward,’’ Garnier-Delcourt said. ‘‘More than a thousand or so species are discovered every year in the world. In terms of biodiversity, the ecosystem of fungi is beginning to be better known.’’
Considering that fungi species are the second-most abundant on the planet – below only the insect population - it is surely only a matter of time before they gain the recognition they deserve.
Although Garnier-Delcourt’s mycological society has seen growing interest from people for wild edible mushrooms, the number of amateur mycologists in the Grand Duchy can be counted on one hand.
And that despite the fact that we come into contact with them everyday, and not just in the forest. From athlete’s foot to plant diseases and from yoghurt to beer - fungi are with us all the time.
Seek - Determine species of foraged fungi by seeking assurance from the team at the House of Nature. Good quality photographs required. Email: Pilzberodung2020@gmx.com.
See - Have fun using an App, like Shroomify, to help determine mushrooms you may have seen. Use common sense and always seek confirmation from a specialist.
Sow - Grow your own mushrooms for picking! There are a multitude of mushroom growing kits on the market that allow you to forage safely at home.
Search - Read Merlin Sheldrake’s recently released, ‘Entangled Life’ and prepare to be astonished at these organisms.
Stay - Cosy up in a cute hotel modelled on mushrooms at the Péitche Lauer in Useldange.
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