The Magic of Mushrooms
I first met the incredible landscape photographer Stephen Studd when I created my garden Beneath a Mexican Sky at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2017. Stephen and I have kept in touch ever since. It was through a recent post of Turkey Tails on my Instagram profile that Stephen introduced me to his wife Rachel Corby. Firstly, I had no idea that the Fungi I had photographed were Turkey Tails (they do resemble turkey tails) but also that they are very good for our digestive system. Rachel actually makes a tincture out of them. I was fascinated with this so I invited
Rachel to write a guest blog on MUSHROOMS and here it is…..
Turkey Tails growing on a rotting trunk in the woods. Look out for these on your woodland walks
Photo Credit: Manoj Malde
MY INTEREST IN MUSHROOMS
I love mushrooms. In fact, I have always loved mushrooms but over the last couple of autumns I have run workshops that seem to have coincided with peak mushroom season, which has given me the perfect excuse to explore these beautiful beings a little more deeply. Walking through the woods with a group of people has also meant that with so many extra pairs of eyes on the lookout, many more mushroom species have come to my attention. As a result, we have supplemented our retreat food with various different wild mushroom varieties from the very tasty hen-of-the-woods (Grifola frondosa) to the blander giant puffball (Calvatia gigantea).
Hen of the woods – Also known as Maitake, hen-of-the-woods is a delicious wild mushroom that grows in a large clusters on the trunk of mature oaks or from the ground right next to an oak trunk.
Mushrooms are in fact the fruiting bodies of mycelia. Mycelium is the living body of the fungus; it grows like vast mats of white strands either in the soil or whichever other substrate the mushroom is growing out of. Mycelium is for the most part out of sight, so it is easy to overlook its importance in the ecology of a place. However there has been a surge of interest in mushrooms over the last few years and finally I think we are beginning to understand how important they are.
Mycelium is the vegetative part of a fungus or fungus-like bacterial colony, consisting of a mass of branching, thread-like hyphae. The mass of hyphae is sometimes called shiro, especially within the fairy ring fungi. Fungal colonies composed of mycelium are found in and on soil and many other substrates.
IMPORTANCE OF MYCELIUM
Mycelia help break down dead matter, such as fallen trees, cycling them back into the food chain as nutrients. They also excrete acids which break down rocks, bringing the minerals held in them, into an available form for plant nutrition. We have recently also discovered their important symbiotic relationship with the roots of plants. Plants communicate and exchange water and nutrients with each other through mycelium which connects the roots of separate plants. In return for this important job the mycelia receive sugars from the plants, something essential for their life, but something they can’t produce themselves. Mycelia are essential for plant life and so essential for our own lives, as of course we could not survive a single day without the oxygen produced by plants, or the food they also provide us with. You could say that we depend on this mostly underground, so essentially invisible, life form for life itself.
Photo Credit: Louise Carron Harris
Fly agaric, the mushroom that we all know from illustrated fairy tales in early childhood, provides a colourful delight on a woodland floor.
EDIBLE OR MEDICINAL
In addition to keeping life on this planet going, many mushrooms are either edible or medicinal, some both. In China and Japan, the medicinal properties of mushrooms are revered, and mushrooms have long been consumed for their health benefits. Closer to home, on mainland Europe, many wild mushrooms are widely foraged for their variety of flavours and textures. In the UK we are lagging behind a little, but interest is rising as people take more and more interest in both food and medicine foraging.
The first and most important thing to bear in mind if you are to be tempted by the thought of a wild mushroom forage is getting the identification correct. Many mushrooms look similar to the untrained eye and a slight mistake could have deadly consequences. So, before you begin it is worth going on a guided mushroom walk with an experienced mushroom forager, who will point out some common species and how to correctly identify them. Then get hold of a good mushroom identification book, so that you can remind yourself of what you know and expand your knowledge. If you do go gathering, make sure that you tap the cap of the mushroom before you pick it to spread the spores. Also use a basket rather than a plastic container for your harvest, so that the mushrooms don’t sweat too much before you get home and that any remaining spores will spread over the land as you walk.
One of the mushrooms that almost everyone can recognise and that has no similar looking mushrooms to get it confused with is fly agaric (Amanita muscaria). This mushroom is not great for eating as it contains toxins and has hallucinogenic effects, and thus, must be prepared in a specific manner to avoid an experience you weren’t prepared for! It does however provide excellent medicine for sciatica when made into a tincture and applied topically.
One mushroom, or to be technically correct, bracket fungus, that I have had the luck to have been harvesting and working with over the last few years is turkey tail (Trametes versicolor). It arrived in my garden in the autumn of 2019 on the limbs of a felled plum tree. Luckily turkey tail is another of those mushrooms that is hard to misidentify. There are coloured rings spreading outwards from the point it attaches to its host, these give it the name as they look similar to the patterning on a turkey tail. Also, there are no gills on the underside, instead it looks quite solid and white, with lots of small pores. If it looks very creamy or yellow on the underside this indicates that the mushroom is quite old, I tend to only harvest the younger mushrooms.
Photo Credit: Rachel Corby
Turkey tail on log – Turkey tail grows on dead wood with different coloured rings fanning out from its attachment point in a similar way to its namesake, a turkey tail.
TURKEY TAIL TINCTURE
I was so excited when I found turkey tail growing on my log pile, I decided to make a tincture with them. To do the same, pick a couple of handfuls of the mushrooms and dry them on a sunny windowsill or in the oven at around 45C/ 115F (or in a dehydrator if you have one). When freshly harvested they are rather bendy, so dry them until they are crisp and snap. Then blitz them in a food processor to make a rough powder and put this in a jam jar. Half fill the jar with the powder as it will expand as it rehydrates, fill the rest with alcohol. I prefer vodka as it has no taste of its own, but you could use gin or brandy, just make sure that the alcohol content is a minimum of 40%vol. Then leave the mixture for a minimum of two weeks, giving it a good shake once a day. I usually leave the mix a little longer, perhaps a month or six weeks. When you feel it is time, strain the mixture through a sieve, preferably lined with muslin or similar, so that none of the mushroom pieces make it into the tincture. Compost the mushroom pieces and pour the remaining liquid into a dropper bottle, this is your tincture! Make sure that you clearly label what is inside. Stored in a cupboard away from light and heat your tincture will be good to use for several years.
Photo Credit: Rachel Corby
Turkey Tail tincture brewing – dried and powdered turkey tail, sitting in a jar of vodka, brewing away to make a medicinal tincture.
Once you have the tincture you can take up to one dropper-full three times a day to boost your immune system. This tincture is great to use when you want to avoid a cold or a virus that is doing the rounds. I tend to take a daily dose throughout the winter months to protect me and so far, so good, I rarely get sick. Taking the tincture will also help you recover more quickly if you are already sick with a cold or virus. In addition, turkey tail tincture is a prebiotic, which means that it feeds all the good bacteria that are so important for healthy gut function. Taking the tincture has further benefits, for example it contains flavonoid antioxidants which help reduce inflammation in the body. Also, it can suppress the growth and spread of colon cancer cells, working well alongside both chemo and radiotherapy – if you do need it for this, I would absolutely recommend finding an herbalist who can guide and support your healing journey.
Photo Credit: Rachel Corby
Supermarket mushrooms – a selection of button, shiitake and portobello mushrooms purchased from a supermarket, ready to sit in the sun and have a vitamin D boost.
One of the reasons that turkey tail can help boost the immune system is that it has a high vitamin D content, a vitamin that most people are deficient of. Vitamin D is essential for calcium absorption and brain development, alongside helping to keep the immune system functioning efficiently. A deficiency of vitamin D has been linked to depression. Whether or not you have access to turkey tail, I suggest that it is a great idea to incorporate a variety of fabulous mushrooms into your diet.
Photo Credit: Stephen Studd
If this all sounds a bit much and you know that you are unlikely to ever go gathering mushrooms except from the supermarket, it is worth knowing that all mushrooms which have been exposed to the sun contain vitamin D. You can even increase the vitamin D content of supermarket mushrooms by leaving them out in the sun for 6 hours with their gills facing up to the sunlight.
Shiitake on a log in a garden setting – shiitake mushrooms growing on a log in a garden, something that with the right kit anyone can do.
GROWING YOUR OWN
Alternatively, you could grow your own! This is not as tricky as it sounds, there are many mushroom growing kits available covering many different species from shiitake to lion’s mane. Some kits are ready to use, you simply have to shock your mushroom log by leaving in cold water over night and then wait for the mycelium to fruit. Others require inoculating a log with Mushroom spawn plugs or dowels, but even this only requires a beginner’s level of skill. And imagine a whole mushroom farm, just outside your back door!
Whether you are a mushroom lover or not I recommend paying attention and noticing when you see a mushroom. Look at all times of year. Look for different varieties, colours, shapes, and sizes. Have a go at identifying the ones you discover, although remember never attempt to eat any unless you are 100% sure that you have the correct identification. Have a close look at each type you find, you may surprise yourself and discover that with time you find them just as exquisite as the flowers in your garden.