If You Go Down To The Woods Today….
A visit to your local woods, especially if they are coniferous, may result in a pixie sighting, if not then at least that red fungus with the white spots which pixies are famed for sitting on – perhaps other fungi are not so comfortable. It may be that fairies sit on them, not pixies, but whichever, I don’t recommend if you see this fungi waiting for the fabled creatures to appear, you may be disappointed!
These fungi are called fly agaric (Amanita muscaria). They are also considered to be dangerously poisonous so if you do see one, and they are considered common, don’t touch it, never mind eat it. Indeed it is probably the most widely known of the poisonous fungi in Britain, eaten raw it causes stomach cramps, hallucinations and, possibly, death. It is in fact – although it is not generally realised – strongly psychedelic. In Lapland apparently reindeer get high on it and leap around, which some say may have given rise to tales of Santa’s flying reindeer. Now don’t do this at home, even if you have easy access to a reindeer. Lapps have a custom of deliberately fee
ding fly agaric to their deer and then collecting and drinking the urine because most of the toxins are filtered out by the reindeer’s digestive system. They have also been eaten in the past in this country, especially by druids using a similar technique involving humans, the shaman and fasting. I strongly advise you not to even think about it. It may be that the tradition of Santa Claus was intrinsically linked to fly agaric. The fungi has long been part of Christmas festivities in Central Europe but is it from Siberia that the legend of Santa coming down the chimney started? Apparently the shaman, as part of mid-winter festivities, would enter a yurt through the smoke hole and shin down the supporting pole carrying with him a sack of dried fly agaric. He would then proceed to conduct whatever festivity or ritual took place and leave the way he first came. Folk in the yurt believed that the shaman either flew away or was carried away by flying reindeer. It’s easy to see how our Santa Claus traditions arose and even why Santa wears red, the colour of fly agaric, and lives in the far north.
There is, however, another use for this lovely looking fungi as an insecticide. It has been used as a fly trap for centuries. In the 13th century folk broke it up in milk and placed jars of this concoction in fly-infested rooms. In Eastern Europe it is still used as an insecticide, although today folk replace the milk with a sugar solution. Please remember, despite such fascinating legends attached to this fungus, folk have died from eating fly agaric.
Some say Stan Beer’s a fun guy – but the true fungi seem to prefer the damp and now is the time to see them. There are well over 1,000 different fungi in the UK and if you want to get to know more about them and maybe even recognise a few then joining a fungi foray is a great introduction. A pocket book of common fungi can help, but keep it simple and visit a website such as First Nature. I don’t really recommend picking any fungi, like much of our biodiversity it’s in dangerous decline and never eat mushrooms unless they have been picked off a greengrocer’s shelves.
Finally, another interesting and commonly found fungi for you is the Razor Strop (Piptoporus betulinus), also known as birch polypore or birch bracket. No prizes for guessing what tree to find it on. It’s a bracket fungi rather than the traditionally shaped fungi, which means it’s found sprouting out of trees. These fungi have antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties and it is speculated that the Tyrolean Ice Man used them for medicinal purposes. Barbers used to ‘strop’ or sharpen their cut-throat razors on the tough, leathery strips cut from the surfaces of these polypores, and so they became known as the Razor Strop Fungus. This fascinates me, firstly -why do people shave? But, more interestingly, unless perhaps you use a Kurdish barber, it’s probable that you’ve never seen a cut throat razor and for young folk, used to using electrical equipment or multi bladed hand tools and squirty stuff out of a tin, it must be strange to think folk once trusted their exposed necks to these dangerous tools which were then sharpened on mushrooms. I guess if you cut yourself you could always use the antibacterial properties of Razor Strop fungi to treat the wounds!
Nigel Heptinstall (Outdoors2015)