Phenomenal Fungi – a Lesson in Perspective

I realized just how insignificant I was in this world when Zimbabwean mycologist, Cathy Sharp, held a course about fungi on our farm last weekend. We learned, and witnessed, how fungi is an exquisite example of interconnectedness, and how vast and diverse and intelligent it turns out to be.

Fungi is, as described in this BBC feature, the earth’s information superhighway. … “The more we learn about these underground networks, the more our ideas about plants have to change,” wrote Nic Fleming, the author of the piece. “They aren’t just sitting there quietly growing. By linking to the fungal network they can help out their neighbors by sharing nutrients and information – or sabotage unwelcome plants by spreading toxic chemicals through the network. This ‘wood wide web’, it turns out, even has its own version of cybercrime.”

We fell upon innumerable fungi in our garden, in the bush just beyond our garden, and the Miombo woodland between our house and the airstrip. Below are examples of the different species we found, and although none of them were edible, a couple were psychedelic!

Cathy Sharp, Zimbabwe's leading mycologist, telling the group about fungi we found just beyond our garden.
Mycologist Cathy Sharp telling some of the participants about fungi we found under the trees beyond our garden.
Earth Star fungi when, when poked with a stick in the center, squirts spore into the air.
Earth Star fungi which, when poked with a stick in the center, squirted spore into the air.  Photo credit: Claire Quinn
Spore collecting from a psilocybin mushroom found next to our vegetable garden, a.k.a a Magic Mushroom!
Spore collecting from a psilocybin mushroom found next to our vegetable garden, a.k.a a Magic Mushroom!
This fungi looked like it had been scrubbed up and varnished. It was one of the first we found on the course.
This fungi looked like it had been scrubbed up and varnished. It was one of the first we found on the course.
Tiny Bird's Nest Fungi, taken with a macro lens. Photo credit: Claire Quinn
A most unusual find: tiny Bird’s Nest fungi filled with silver eggs. The picture was taken with a macro lens. Photo credit: Claire Quinn
A Stropharia mushroom found in a Miombo woodland beyond hour house.
A Stropharia mushroom found in a Miombo woodland beyond our house.
Schizophyllum fungi found in our Miombo woodland.
Schizophyllum fungi found in our Miombo woodland.  Photo credit: Claire Quinn

 

Marc Harris, lodge manager at nearby Tongabezi, studying fungi through his lens.
Marc Harris, lodge manager at nearby Tongabezi, studying a mushroom through his lens.
Fungi found on a dead tree branch that looks like a delicate parasol. Name unknown. Photo credit: Claire Quinn.
Fungi found on a tree branch that looked like a delicate parasol. Name unknown. Photo credit: Claire Quinn.
Bracket fungi.
Bracket fungi. Name unknown.

My primary focus was, of course, to find and identify edible wild mushrooms. Although we only found two baby chanterelles, like those pictured below, we did unearth what-appeared-to-be remnants of an old truffle. Truffles grow in Miombo woodland and, in our winter, they have been found in Kalahari sand soil near Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. According to Cathy, these Kalahari truffles pack quite a punch because they are hot, as in chili hot. She has staked out two possible truffle areas to revisit here on the farm in July, which is when they are usually visible.

Despite our edible wild mushrooms needing a combination of rain and sun before being ready for picking — the (heavy) rain arrived only a few days before the course — below are pictures of three varieties we eat, which were foraged in previous years within a close radius of our house.

Kapiupiu chanterelles (Tonga)
Kapiupiu chanterelles (Tonga name).
The head of a Chinyika mushroom (Tonga).
The head of a Chinyika mushroom amongst the leaf litter (Tonga name).
Kasumpa mushrooms (Tokaleya).
Kasumpa mushrooms (Tokaleya name), falling out of Adelina Banda’s apron pocket.

At the moment I’m immersed in the latest biography of English nature poet, Ted Hughes, whose relationship with Sylvia Plath is stuff of literary legend. They lived together in rural Devon, and below is a poem about mushrooms, written by Plath, that really resonated with me.

Mushrooms
– by Sylvia Plath

Overnight, very
Whitely, discreetly,
Very quietly

Our toes, our noses
Take hold on the loam,
Acquire the air.

Nobody sees us,
Stops us, betrays us;
The small grains make room.

Soft fists insist on
Heaving the needles,
The leafy bedding,

Even the paving.
Our hammers, our rams,
Earless and eyeless,

Perfectly voiceless,
Widen the crannies,
Shoulder through holes. We

Diet on water,
On crumbs of shadow,
Bland-mannered, asking

Little or nothing.
So many of us!
So many of us!

We are shelves, we are
Tables, we are meek,
We are edible,

Nudgers and shovers
In spite of ourselves.
Our kind multiplies:

We shall by morning
Inherit the earth.
Our foot’s in the door.

A Magic Mushroom set against Chris's blue shirt.
A Magic Mushroom set against Chris’s blue shirt.

Annabel Hughes Aston is a writer and an award-winning chef in Livingstone, Zambia. She is the creator of "bush gourmet" cuisine.

18 Comments

  • Abso-bloody-lutely FASCINATING!!

    Reply
    • Isn’t it, Hellie? 🙂 Much gratitude, as always, for your interest! xo

      Reply
  • It sounds like time well spent! So does Adelina teach you about the mushrooms that are traditionally eaten in your area?

    Reply
    • Absolutely. Adelina, as with most Zambians who grew up in the area, was taught which wild mushrooms were edible and which were poisonous. I still would never forage for wild mushrooms without her!

      Reply
  • How wonderful to have an expert to show you – I wonder how many fungi are lurking in my garden and I don’t even know!

    Reply
    • It is just amazing how many you see when you take the time to look, Margie. Here they were everywhere! True, it had been raining on and off for a few days, but the variety really floored me. Yes, we were very lucky to have such a passionate and knowledgeable teacher come to the farm.

      Reply
  • Oh, and I love the poem

    Reply
  • Thanks Annabel, I loved this and love Cathy 🙂 how great to discover more about the science behind the amazing ecosystem at play in your richly abundant part of the world 🙂 Magic to combine that with local knowledge passed on by Adelina 🙂

    Reply
    • So much gratitude for your great comment, Gill. I was in awe of what we learned last weekend. As Chris and I discussed during the course, we are less than grains of sand in the greatness of the natural world. I’m not sure if the same applies to Adelina Banda though, haha! 😉

      Reply
  • Just incredible how many different ones found so close to your house…. a great and very informative article. Thank you again! xxx

    Reply
    • Thank you so much, Louise, for your kind comment. When you think that we hardly even scratched the surface of what’s out there, it really does put life into perspective, don’t you think? We live in a wondrous world, to be sure! xo

      Reply
  • ‘Whitely, discreetly’ . . . methinks Sylvia Plath has it wrong there ’cause the fungi surrounding you somehow ask to be noticed – oh lucky you . . . . hope there are as many discrete tastes as there are appearances . . . . incredible journey and thanks and envious as yet again . . .

    Reply
    • I think Sylvia Plath was writing about those tasty English mushrooms you can eat. 🙂 YUM! Thank you, as always, for your interest, Eha.

      Reply
  • Mushrooms have never looked so pretty!

    Reply
  • Thank you for sharing your adventures in hunting mushrooms. Hope that I can do the same and just enjoy nature too. I can not stop to be in awe always with nature on how magical it is. I love these shots!

    Reply
    • Thank you so much for your kind comment. The mushroom world is fascinating! All the best to you, Annabel

      Reply

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