In search of Woorda

There is not a lot of information around on the fungi eaten by indigenous people in Australia before the arrival of Europeans. One of the few references on the topic is by James Drummond who arrived in the Swan River Colony in the year it was founded, 1829.

James Drummond with grandchild

He was a botanist and a keen observer and recorder of the local flora as well as the diet of the original inhabitants. The following is a snippet from a letter he wrote to the Perth Enquirer in May 1842.

I have often wondered if it might be possible to identify the blue staining bolete that he describes as Woorda. There are many blue staining boletes in Western Australia and I know of several that people have eaten but none of them fit the description he gives. I had long suspected that it might be a Gyroporus since members of that genus are eaten elsewhere on the globe and with one exception they appear to all be edible.

A paper published in 2019 gives us some some useful information about Gyroporus in Australia. It is titled “Three New Species of Gyroporus (Boletales, Basidiomycota) from Australia”. In it is a description of Gyroporus occidentalis with an explanation that it is the only rapidly blue staining member of the genus from WA.

I was fortunate enough to spot one of these on a friend’s property this year and it is shown in the following video and photographs. It is recorded as growing from sandy soil (well, that’s most of the coastal plain!) and it’s range includes Perth. I think that there is a some chance that this is Woorda but see below for further possibilities.

The rapid blueing reaction in real time
In situ view showing cap surface and pores
View showing stipe and pore surface

Some of the features of this mushroom match the description in the paper closely. The cap is described as “dry, floccose to matted woolly to heavily appressed tomentose, yellow-white to yellow buff to dirty yellow, cyanescent, with slightly extended margin”. This close-up of the cap surface seems to match that description. I couldn’s see that the cap margin was extended though.

Cap surface

The pores are yellow and cyanescent and approximately 0.3mm in diameter with a typically pentagonal outline.

Anther interesting aspect of this is the name Woorda. Of course transcriptions of language are subject to errors and interpretations and so forth but the records of Daisy Bates provide for some interesting reading. These are available in digital form here. The many words recorded as meaning mushroom are provided on the site as a map. shown below. It triggers the question of whether the diversity of names matches the diversity of species that were part of the diet.

Map of words for mushroom from digital Daisy Bates site

The term Woorda appears in a dictionary of Balardong Noongar language as meaning fungus. It is difficult to know if this is a generic word or refers to the specific fungus that Drummond mentions. He does seem to infer that it is specific. It is notable that, at the time he wrote to the Enquirer, he had been farming at Toodjay (Duidgee) which is in Balardong country. That would imply that the range of the fungus includes Balardong country. I am not sure if Gyroporus occidentalis extends out this far but it will be interesting to find out.

Noongar groups. Attribute John D. Croft, English Wikipedia

The situation is complicated by the fact that there are other, rather similar looking blue staining boletes within Balardong country. One of these is documented by Doug Sawkins in his excellent record of the fungi of Foxes Lair at Narrogin. His very large blue staining bolete is similar in some ways to Gyroporus occidentalis but it lacks the chambered stem and has red tones where it has been attacked but insects. It matches one of Daisy Bates’ records of Woorda meaning ‘large mushroom’.

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