Archive for Fungi

Look-alike Cortinarius

I was walking along the fire track this evening when I spotted this lovely big white mushroom cap, about 100 mm across.

Now, in colour and shape, this is not disimilar from an edible Agaricus.  It is similar for example to Agaricus bitorquis.  The location, in undisturbed eucalypt forest is a little unlikely for an Agaricus such as that however.

It can be seen that the edge of the cap has remnants of a torn veil.   This might lead one to think that it is an Amanita.  However, on flipping the mushroom over, all is revealed.

We can see from this that the mushroom has a ring on the stem, like an edible Agaricus and that the gills are within the right colour range, but on the surface of that ring is a deposit of orange spores.   This shows us immediately that what we are looking at is not an Agaricus, but is in fact a Cortinarius of some kind.  If it was an Agaricus, it would have a chocolate brown spore print.

Further differentiation from Agaricus is provided by the fact that the stem and the cap are part of the same structure.   In Agaricus, the stem will break away cleanly from the cap.

As a rule, species in the genus Cortinarius are poisonous, so this is one mushroom that we would definitely avoid!

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Boletes – a lost resource

“Few orders of plants appear to contribute more to the support of animal life in Western Australia.  Many species, Particularly, the genus Boletus, are used as food by the natives and directly supply no inconsiderable portion of their support for several months a year.”

James Drummond, the pioneer botanist of WA.

This quote is from an article by eminent mycologist Roger Hilton, in a short article about edible fungi he wrote in the journal Landscope in 1988.

In Western Australia there is a large number of boletes that spring up each Autumn.  Judging from overseas experience, it is likely that a lot of these are edible species, but all of the knowledge of Aboriginal consumption of these fungi sadly has been lost.

Hilton comments there are boletes that will make you sick, but none that are known to be lethal like the Amanitas.   However, there has been one recorded case of a fatality from eating a bolete.  In this case it was from muscarine in the mushroom. 

From time to time, I experiment with some of the many boletes that spring up on my property.  My standard test is to lightly fry a few small slices in some oil and do a taste test.   By this means, I have been able to eliminate a few as being too revolting to consider.   There remain others that are tantalisingly tasty.  I tried one a few hours ago.   It was a handsome specimen with firm white flesh and a black cap.   When cooked in this way, it produced a wonderful tasting type of crisp.  So far, I am feeling no ill effects from the very small pieces that I tasted.   But this is not for the faint-hearted!   Over the years, by cautious exploration, I hope to be able to find one or two boletes that are edible.  I would rather be using a gas chromatograph for the initial assessments, however.

Presently, the only boletes that are known to be edible are the Slippery Jacks and Phlebopus marginatus, the Salmon Gum mushroom which often appears in the news because of it’s giant size.

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Coprinus comatus – The shaggy ink cap

This mushroom is not a native, but it grows in Australia.  It is often found in parks and on waste ground and once established in a patch of ground, they will come up year after year.  Often, they favour grassed areas where the grass clippings are allowed to rot down in situ.  The one below is on the edge of the local football oval where it comes up each year with the onset of the first rains and continues to fruit through winter.

These mushrooms, in common with all the members of the genus, self-decompose into a black inky mess.   The one above is beginning to go through that process and the one below is well into it.

For culinary purposes, the mushrooms need to be picked before the decomposition process has set in.  Decomposing specimens need to be kept apart from fresh ones.   They can be kept in iced water in the fridge for about half a day to avoid onset of the decomposition reaction.

For years I tried to incorporate these mushrooms into dishes without much success.  They always turned into a horrible slimy mess.  Then someone explained the trick.  You need to slice them and then toss them in a pan for a while on low heat until they have lost a good proportion of their moisture.  After that, they can be cooked as you would a normal mushroom.  The de-watering step ensures that they remain firm during the cooking process.

It is also possible to dry these mushrooms if you happen to have a dryer, or if the weather is sunny.  Drying must be done to the point of crispness.  Once dried, they can be used to impart a distinctive flavour to dishes.

Many books declare that this mushroom cannot be eaten with alcohol.  Unfortunately, this is a myth that has been propagated throughout the world.  Some of the confusion is due to the fact that the mushrooms that do cause this problem used to be grouped in the same genus, Coprinus.   With the advent of DNA profiling, things have been changed around and there are now only a few species left in the genus Coprinus.   The offending mushrooms are now in the genus Coprinopsis.  The most well known member of the genus that causes problems with alcohol is Coprinopsis atramentaria, the common ink cap.   It is notable that Coprinopsis and Coprinus are not only different genera, but they are in different families.   Coprinus is in Agaricaceae and Coprinopsis is in Psathyrellacea.  They are not even closely related!

The compound that causes the issues with alcohol is known as Coprine.   It is an unusual amino acid.  There are other unusual amino acids in other fungi that are also responsible for toxic effects.    The structure and breakdown reaction of coprine are shown below.

 

 

coprine mechanism

When we consume alcohol, our body processes it in a specific way.   It is first converted to acetaldehyde and then that is acted on by an enzyme called aldehyde dehydrogenase which converts the acetaldehyde to acetic acid.   The aminocyclopropanol in the reaction above blocks the action of aldehyde dehydrogenase and the result is an accumulation of acetaldehyde in the body.   This is toxic and it gives a reaction similar to Antabuse, a drug that has been used to treat alcoholism.
There is no truth in the idea that coprine itself has been used to treat alcoholism.  It has far to many other toxic side effects to be used clinically.   One of those side effects is to cause tumours in the reproductive system of males.

 

Coprinus comatus is a relatively large mushroom.  It can attain a height of 200 mm or more and is typically 20 to 30 mm in diameter.   It should not be confused with some of the similar looking small species that are sometimes seen on composts for example.  One mushroom of similar stature that occurs in my part of the world is Coprinopsis aff. stangliana.   It is shown in the image below kindly provided by Luke Cashmore.

Coprinopsis aff. stangliana

Coprinopsis aff. stangliana

 

 

 

 

Footnote May 2011. I found a large patch of these growing nearby a few days ago and picked several kilograms of them. In order to handle them quickly, I decided to chop them and render them down to a soup in a stainless steel pot. It was an expensive pot with a copper insert in the base and I bought it for making jam. They rendered down nicely and I left the pot on the stove overnight, then decanted it into two smaller containers in the morning. The resultant mix had a pleasant, almost sweet smell. However, upon tasting a small sample of soup made from the mix, my senses were soon overcome by an unpleasant metallic taste. Research suggests that this is 1-octene-3-one. I can still taste it after 24 hours and two intervening meals. I have never tasted anything with such a persistant after taste. So that is something to be wary of with this mushroom. I have dried a smaller sample of them, and will investigate their taste with caution.

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Agrocybe (Cyclocybe) parasitica

At the top of my list of edible mushrooms that I have not tried is Agrocybe parasitica.  That is because it is a large mushroom and can occur in fairly large clusters.  It should also be possible to cultivate this mushroom.

 

Above picture is courtesy of Reiner

Various sources disagree with respect to the edibility of this mushroom.  None list it as poisonous, but some advise caution.  On the other hand, Watling and Taylor (1987) describe it as an excellent edible.  Their description can be found here.

9 May 2021

It is 11 years since I made that post. This year has seen a flurry of fb posts from people in northern NSW describing this as the best tasting mushroom that they have ever eaten. It seems that it occurs in quite large outcrops in that area as well as in New Zealand. It also occurs in Tasmania. I am still to taste it. Oh, and it has had a name change to Cyclocybe parasitica.

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Truffles – the new crop of the region

In this corner of Western Australia, black truffles are becoming big business.   Although the soil requires quite a bit of lime to bring up the pH, they are growing exceptionally well here, with some of the biggest specimens in the world coming from a farm about 20 kilometers away from me.  I have a small plantation of innoculated oaks and hazelnuts that are years away from providing a harvest, but I live in hope.  This is an example of a truffle that I purchased locally.  It cost around $100.

truffle

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Tricholomopsis rutilans – plums and (dis)custard –

Some mushrooms that are listed as edible might be better listed as non-poisonous.   I did try a little bit of one of these plums and custard mushrooms which are considered edible in Europe, but it was truly disgusting, with a taste like mud – yuk!

tricholomopsis

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Morchella – The morel, a worldwide favourite

This mushroom is a favourite right around the world.   Most people in Western Australia are completely unaware of it, however.  I have found it in quite a few situations, but nothing quite compared with the crops that emerged from pine bark mulch next to a limestone wall at Golden Bay, to the south of Perth over a period of 3 years.  There were thousands of them. They are always quoted as a spring mushroom, but I found these large crops in mid-winter (June/July).

I didn’t get photographs of the outcropping, unfortunately as it was before digital cameras were an everyday item.  But I did get this one picture of a single specimen. (see edit below) There is a better image of one on this site.

morchella

And, just in case you don’t believe the  numbers of morels that I picked, here is a jar full of dried ones.   BTW, if drying morels, do it as fast as possible to prevent any other organisms taking hold.

I have found a single morel growing in the karri forest right next to my place, and they are reported as being common in Spring through the jarrah forests of the SW.  They are not uncommon in suburban Perth, and friends have shown me examples cropping up in their back yards.

It is quite easy to culture these from a piece of the inside of the hollow stem, using standard techniques.   The ones I have cultures like this have been very vigorous growers.  However, moving  from culture to fruiting body is not a simple task and has defeated many highly skilled mycologists, as well as me.

I have eaten a lot of these, my favourite recipe being morels stuffed with crab meat cooked in a cream sauce.  The only problem I found was that it was almost impossible to wash the sand out of the crenulations.  WA is a sandy place.  To be perfectly honest, though I find them to be pleasant to eat, I can’t understand the frenzy that they induce in places like the US, in May.

When I had a lot of them, I tried to sell some to restaurants around Perth.  Most of them had never seen a morel!

Note: June 2011. The morels in the picture above have been identified as Morchella rufobrunnea, by DNA matching through the assistance of morel expert Philippe Clowez. This appears to be the first record of this species in Australia. Previous specimens have come from Mexico, Israel, The Canary Isands. The habitat where these were found is remarkably similar to that described for the other specimens, even down to the presence of olive trees in one case. The unusual timing of the fruiting appears to be another feature in common with the overseas versions. Thank you Philippe.

Edit 1 Sept 2015:  With thanks to correspondent Oscar, I was able to collect more specimens of Morchella rufobrunnea from pinebark mulch in Joondalup a Perth suburb last weekend.  This was exactly the same sort of substrate that I found them in before.   I am very grateful to Oscar for alerting me to these as I have been on the lookout for them for 14 years since my first find.   Here is a picture of a cluster of them together with the lump of and bark and soil that they were growing from.

IMG_0157morelsmall

The lump of bark and soil appears to be stuck together with mycelium in much the same way as the stonemaker fungus, Polyporus tuberaster.  The association with pine bark mulch is interesting as this species is reported to be associated with pine forests.  Just how they come to be associated with the mulch is a mystery though.  They appear to be saprobic rather than mycorrhizal in this case.  Since the advent of Facebook mushroom interest groups it has been possible to establish that these are also widespread in SA, VIC and NSW too. They occur over a very wide time range, from June right through to October.

Here is a picture of some as they occurred on the mulch.

morchellaruffoonbark

Another type of morel that occurs in Western Australia comes up in forests after fire.   I have encountered these in burnt karri forest in large numbers though they are also reported to occur in burnt jarrah forest.  These are reported to be Morchella elata by the local mycologists. Here are a couple of images of them.

Morchella elata lantern1

Morchella3

From these two images, it can be seen that the morphology changes widely. The second one looks very much like M. importuna, a mulch-growing species from the US.

More recent work has suggested that there are two fire morels in WA, one of which is identified as Morchella septimelata and the other is yet to be named.  A recent revision by Richard et al. renames M. septimelata as the earlier described M. eximia. This is of worldwide distribution and genetically identical specimens have been reported from Wyoming.  A specimen collected in 2016 by the author has been confirmed as M. eximia by DNA analysis. Fire morels occur in August and September.

There is another morel that occurs in NSW and Victoria in forests that have not been subjected to fire.  It was recently (2014) identified as Morchella australiana.  I don’t believe that this has been recorded from Western Australia at this stage (though it would perhaps be nice if they did).  It appears that this is the only morel that can be described as native to Australia.

People have been collecting morels that are not associated with fire  from the forests in Victoria for a long time.  Perhaps these are the Morchella australiana referred to above.   Below is a picture of a basket of them kindly provided by a friend.   You can see the black edges on them which seem to be a feature of these ones.

Victorian forest morels

Victorian forest morels

In Tasmania, Karen Stott & Caroline Mohammed have investigated native morels as part of a RIRDC project, “Specialty Mushroom Production Systems: Maitake and Morels”, available online.  They have identified a number of species that are shown below in a picture from their publication. They also address the cultivation of these fungi.  It would not be surprising to find similar species in WA, or perhaps a re-classification of some of the M. elata that are currently reported here.

tasmanian morels

In South Australia, people are reporting a morel with black edges.  One report says that these can be found on remnant sand dunes with sclerophyll forest.  Here is a picture of one from South Australia with kind permission from Yannick Foubert.

yannick-morel

There are many more morels in the US than we have here.  Debbie Viess who has been kind enough to comment in this blog has a rather nice summary together with some information on some of the different species.

October 2021

I was intrigued to see some images taken by Bronek Burza in the Hobart area of Tasmania labelled Morchella tasmanica. A couple of his images are included below, with his permission.

Morchella tasmanica credit Bronek Burza
Morchella tasmanica credit Bronek Burza

I had not heard of this species before so I did a little bit of research. It turns out that this was first described in 1920 by John Ramsbottom who worked for the British Museum. The specimen was collected by Lilian Suzette Gibbs in 1914 from The Dromedary near Hobart. A snippet from her publication is given below.

Lilian Gibbs (1870-1925) is quite an interesting character – she travelled the world documenting the ecology of mountain habitats. I will leave the interested reader to research further about her.

Lilian Suzette Gibbs

The description of the species is given in the second installment of the paper above. It is in Latin and doesn’t really help too much with the identification.

To date there has only been one species of Morchella that has been considered to be native to Australia and this is Morchella australiana. Some collections from Tasmania have been identified as M. australiana and there is some speculation that Gibbs’ specimen is in fact the same as M. australiana. In that case it would seem that the name Morchella tasmanica should take precedence. It should be noted though that the Tasmanian specimens do not seem to turn black like the specimens of M. australiana from Victoria and NSW.

This led me to wonder if the Gibbs’ specimen was still in existence and if it might be possible to do a DNA analysis on it. It seems that I have been beaten to the punch here and that just last month a voucher was lodged in Genbank by a group of Australian mycologists. It appears with the Genbank reference OK159934.1. Perhaps because this is a very old specimen, the analysis has been done on the LSU (large subunit ribosomal RNA gene). If one runs a BLAST on this, it does not show up M. australiana as a close relative but perhaps this is because the different approach taken in the DNA analysis. I don’t have sufficient expertise to work my way through this. In due course I imagine that there might be some publication explaining whether M. tasmanica and M. australiana are the same species.

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Suillus granulatus – a Slippery Jack

suillusThis fungus is always associated with pine trees and emerges in huge numbers in pine forests all over the country.   There are two common species, S. granulatus, the normal one where I am and S. luteus, which is more common up near Perth.  The main difference is that the former has no ring on the stem.

Although this mushroom is much collected by people of European background, and turned into pickles,  it is not something that I am fond of.   I find that it leaves a rather unpleasant after-taste.   It is usually peeled and it benefits from drying out before use in cooking to prevent it turning into a slimy mess.

Footnote:  I tried some S. luteus last night (25 April, 2010) in a kind 0f stroganoff.  The dish was pleasant enough, but the after-taste was there again, lingering for a couple of hours.  It is a pity, as these are so plentiful.

Footnote 2: 20 June 2015.  The practice of peeling slippery jacks appears to have a sound basis.  This report indicates that the slimy cap contains a rather strong toxin that is heat stable and not extracted by boiling water.

Footnote 3: 28 April 2016

There has been some suggestion that smaller specimens are firmer than larger specimens.  To investigate this, I picked some fresh S. granulatus and dried them on a wire rack over the wood stove, without peeling them.  The results are shown in the graph below.   It can be seen that there is a clear linear relationship between the wet and dry weights and that the dry material is about 6.5% of the wet weight.  In other words, they are 93.5% water.  In other words, there is no evidence that the smaller specimens are more solid than the large ones.

None of the specimens appeared overtly wet.  Perhaps if there had been more rain, they might have had a higher moisture content.   By comparison, oyster mushrooms are reported to have between 70 and 95% moisture content.  Agaricus bisporus is reported to have a moisture content of between 88.6 and 91.3 percent.  That means that the Agaricus mushrooms are about 60 percent more substantial than the Suillus.

moisture content

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Pluteus cervinus – edible but bland

There is a lot of timber milling around this district and hence a lot of sawdust is generated.  One of the mushrooms that comes up on such piles of sawdust is Pluteus cervinus.   This is a rather gelatinous mushroom with the distinctive pink spore print of the genus.  I have cooked and eaten this mushroom, but I wouldn’t class it as the most desirable fungus I have ever consumed.   I think that it would benefit from an initial dewatering in the pan before cooking.

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Agaricus arvensis – almond mushroom

At various times of year, including mid summer, the parks around Perth erupt in large amounts of mushrooms.  These grow in circles that can be 10 or more metres in diameter.

Viewed up close, the mushrooms have a distinctive appearance.

These mushrooms have a smell of almonds that varies in intensity, depending on the location.   Some smell so stongly of almonds that they can only be used as a flavouring.  The almond smell is due to the presence of benzaldehyde.  This has been shown by gas chromatography.

These mushrooms are white gilled initially and then the gills turn to dark brown with age.   They also bruise yellow, which is often taken as a sign of inedibility.   In fact, however, the yellow staining mushrooms that must be avoided are Agaricus xanthodermus and other species  which contain phenol.    To be able to eat these mushrooms with confidence, one needs to be able to distinguish between the smell of phenol and the smell of benzaldehyde.   That is the smell of phenyl disinfectant and the smell of almond essence.

I find that the small mushrooms are the best to eat.   I have seen other people collecting these.   Some elderly Italian gentlemen.   I have also grown this mushroom.  Well, just one small one!

Here is a picture of a small one, taken in Dagleish, Perth, on 29 March 2010.

In fact, these were the first mushrooms to be put into cultivation, before the normal Agaricus bisporus, and if the early attempts at cultivation had turned out differently, we might be used to the taste of almond mushrooms.

Since these mushrooms grow in the open sunlight, it is interesting to speculate whether they contain significant quantities of vitamin D, since the development of this vitamin has been demonstrated in other members of the genus when exposed to ultraviolet light, as described in this slide presentation.

Here is a few that I picked one lunchtime that are sitting on my keyboard in my former office in Perth.

Agaricus xanthodermus, the one that has the phenolic smell, is not something that I have encountered often.   I did come across this bunch of them growing in sand at Yeagarup though on 5 May 2007.  The smell was very distinctive as was the yellow colour of the base of the stem.  The yellow colour is due to a the oxidation of the phenolic group of leucoagaricone to form agaricone, by atmospheric oxygen.

One last comment.  These mushrooms only have white gills at the immature stage.  One should be very careful to ensure that the gills turn brown with age.  Never eat a mushroom with white gills in the belief that it is a field mushroom unless you have established that you are looking at the immature stage of an Agaricus.   That will take some experience.  Failure to heed this advise could be fatal!

Mature specimens of Agaricus never have white gills.  The deadly Amanitas do.

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