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The wonderful world of ‘shrooms’

Book review: Mushrooms of South Africa

Picture: Nick Fewings on Unsplash.
Review by Garth Johnstone

Lately I’ve become interested in mushrooms and when the title Mushrooms of South Africa (Penguin/Random House) was offered for review, I went “foraging” for it.

They’re mysterious, successful, enduring, delicious and sometimes even deadly things, often seen sticking out of the ground, but with a whole lot more happening in the subterranean environment. They range in size from microscopic to more than a metre wide but there’s plenty more than meets the eye to “magical” mushrooms.

Make sure to heed the disclaimer in the book and warnings about the dangers of eating unidentified mushrooms. Picture: Manuel Barroso Parejo on Unsplash.

Some of the names closely associated with them are puffballs, earthstars, bird’s nest fungi, stinkhorns, jelly fungi, boletes, elfin saddles, truffles and coral fungi.

Compiled by Marieka Gryzenhout, this pocket guide contains pictures, descriptions, range, uses (or not) and, importantly, whether mushrooms are edible or not, and whether they will make you sick or kill you.

Delicacies

I must note, before forgetting, that there’s a prominent disclaimer in the first few pages of the publication stating that it’s absolutely vital that mushrooms are identified before you handle them or even think of eating them. While some are sought-after delicacies, other species are highly poisonous and can even be fatal. The publishers state they will not take any responsibility for anyone who gets sick or is poisoned from consuming any mushrooms discussed in the book. It’s also illegal to collect mushrooms from government forests without a permit.

Beautiful, mysterious, enduring. Picture: Damir Omerovic on Unsplash.

Right, so what else does the book offer? A really fascinating introduction on what exactly a mushroom is. “Neither plant, nor animal, mysterious organisms … that have been used in medicine and food and drink production” for centuries. “As food, some please the palate, while others can poison and kill.”

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It seems there are more than 170,000 fungal species found in SA alone, but as few as 5% of fungi have been named or classified.

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You may know that the part of the mushroom one sees growing out of the ground is just the visible, spore-producing part, (fruit body) of a fungus; underground there could well be a vast network of microscopic “filaments”. Gryzenhout writes: “The basic building blocks of a fungus are long tubes or filaments called hyphae. The hyphae grow together to form a mycelium that infiltrates the medium in which it grows and can develop into structures like mushrooms. Fungi propagate themselves with spores (like seeds of plants), which are formed in different ways in different types of structures, of which mushrooms are just one manifestation.”

Magic?

I don’t know about you, but I find all this rather amazing, and find the term spores just a little frightening. Maybe I’ve been watching too much TV (hello anthrax, chemical warfare, bacterium etc). But I suppose, in the friendly species of mushrooms, the spores are good guys. (And what about magic mushrooms, he asks with a wink?)

A tree staircase? Picture: Jesse Dodds on Unsplash.

It’s also really interesting how they grow, propagate and have really taken up space in our world.

On how they are dispersed and multiply, the book says: “Some mushrooms and other fungi produce huge quantities of spores, which can be seen in their masses when they are released. Spores cannot move on their own, but are dispersed by numerous means – they can be spread, for example, by wind, water, animals and insects, and are specifically adapted for such modes of transport. For example, ‘chains”, made up of millions of spores from, for instance, the green fungus on rotting fruit, can be dispersed by the slightest whiff of air; those in slimy masses on top of a stipe can stick to passing insects.” Fascinating!

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Mushrooms of South Africa comes in a handy, easy-to-carry format. Every type of mushroom listed has a picture to go along with a brief summary, plus listing of description; name (scientific and popular use); distribution; time of fruiting; size; description of “cap”, “stipe” and “lamellae”; edibility and more.

If you wanted to go without an enthusiast or professional forager, you could conceivably take this book and try to point out different mushrooms found in nature. Just be extremely careful, and be sure not to pick anything until you’re 100% sure it’s safe.

ISBN: 978 1 77584 749 6

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