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The perils of a free meal

Outdoor Living

FICKLE FUNGI Though some can eat the yellow stainer mushroom without a problem, it is poisonous for most, causing unpleasant gastrointestinal upset.

Best to know your fields and horses from your yellow stainers

Country Sights and sounds
John Shelley

Early September 1976. After many weeks of exceptionally dry and warm weather we enjoyed a robust downpour of thundery rain, which signalled the end of summer and the onset of an extraordinary harvest of wild mushrooms such as we had never seen before and never have since. They were growing so quickly that even as we gathered them before us they were appearing behind afresh.
We worked our way across one particular field, filling cardboard boxes with bright white buttons an inch or so across, and when we doubled back to take our harvest to the farmhouse, why, there were more than we could deal with.
We even set up a roadside stand for people to help themselves, and left a little ‘honesty box’ into which they could drop an odd bit of change, depending on what they thought their mushrooms were worth. Most placed a low value on them, needless to say. Still, when we replicated that exercise just a few years ago, this time with apples and plums, we got no money at all. On one occasion somebody came along and took all the fruit, and on another they simply took everything with them – fruit, eggs, moneybox, and even the table we had set up on.
But 40 years ago the few shillings we made were very welcome.
Now, in today’s litigious world, we dare not even share our wild mushrooms with any but the closest of friends, for fear something unpleasant should find its way in among them.
But what could possibly go wrong? Field mushrooms are just that, aren’t they?
Well, they are and they aren’t.
When we mention field mushrooms we are talking Agaricus campestris, Agaricus being the genus, and the suffix campestris indicating the particular species. Campestris is Latin, and means ‘of fields or pastures’. Wherever you go in the world, Agaricus campestris is the common field mushroom, which is identified by its white or off-white cap, its pink gills which darken to chocolate brown as the mushroom ages, its pleasant smell and also, importantly, by the slight pink colour it assumes when bruised or otherwise damaged.
But beware, for imposters abound! One we like to find is the horse mushroom, Agaricus arvensis. Rather confusingly, arvensis also means ‘of the fields’. At first glance the horse mushroom closely resembles the field mushroom, but is larger, often attaining a diameter in excess of 15cm. When handled or broken it stains yellow, rather than pink, and has an interesting smell of bitter almonds or marzipan. Still, it is tasty and rather good.
This brings us to another of the field Agarics, Agaricus xanthodermus, or the yellow stainer. This little beauty often grows alongside its close cousins campestris and arvensis. It, too, is white to off white, with pale pink gills that darken to chocolate brown with age. Xanthodermus translates literally as ‘yellow skin’, and derives from this mushroom’s inclination to bruise yellow, rather like the horse mushroom.
This close resemblance to those other welcome additions to the breakfast plate is, for some, rather unfortunate, for the yellow stainer carries quite a kick. Some can safely consume it, but for many the unwitting inclusion of one or two of these to their meal means a rather spoiled day, to say nothing of the nasty clean-up job that must be undertaken by someone.
The yellow stainer can be identified by smell. My book says it smells of carbolic, but who of us can readily describe what carbolic smells like? It actually smells unpleasant, and especially so around the base of the stem. It is a smell worth learning, for knowing it might serve to keep you from the consequence of one fateful mistake.
Note the word ‘fateful’, rather than fatal. While there are certain types of fungi out there capable of finishing us off altogether, the yellow stainer provides something of a learning curve for the unwary.
A dear friend, her eyes swollen from the stings of a thousand bees (‘they’re so bad tempered,’ she’d said, while gouging at their precious honey store with a teaspoon,) discovered a fine crop of woolly milk caps close to her beehives. They were white, and kind of round, and they smelled of mushrooms – they must be right, surely?
She fried them and served them up for supper. I’m just glad I wasn’t there that day. I think nobody ever died from woolly milk cap poisoning, but I dare say there’s folks that might cheerfully cut their tongues off once the extreme and persistent bitterness of these fungi hits them.
There’s much pleasure to be had in gathering a wild harvest. Just be careful out there.