Helen McKerralMagic(al) mushrooms

It’s easy to overlook fungi in a garden… until they bother the plants we want to grow! We blast wilts, blights, rots, mildews and rusts with sulphur, copper, lime or potassium bicarbonate, or with the many proprietary chemicals on the market. Then there’s Phytophthera cinnamoni, widespread throughout the Adelaide Hills. Along the Heysen Trail, boot brushes on the edges of parks (or infested areas?) are meant to remove spores, though I can’t help but think that these apparently unmaintained dusty brushes are more likely to transfer spores between shoes

Boot brush on the Heysen Trail

Boot brush on the Heysen Trail

Fortunately, Phytophthera only grows in anaerobic conditions – waterlogged soil with no flow-through – and the avocados in my garden are okay so far.

However, the vast majority of soil fungi are not only harmless but essential to your garden’s health, quietly decomposing organic matter and making nutrients available, or existing in little-understood symbiotic relationships vital to many of our native plants.


Saffron milk caps (Lactarius deliciosus)

In autumn, I join the elderly Mediterranean migrant ladies with their wicker baskets in the Adelaide Hills to collect slippery jacks (Suillus luteus) and saffron milk caps (Lactarius deliciosus).

I collect field mushrooms (Agaricus campestris) when I see them; Agaricus subrufescens pops up in many of the Adelaide parklands. Hopefully one day I’ll find the porcini mushrooms apparently growing wild in the Adelaide Hills, or even morels! Young shaggy ink cap mushrooms (Coprinus comatus) are apparently edible (but not with alcohol); I picked a few once but they deteriorated so quickly I decided against eating them.

Of course, you shouldn’t collect edible mushrooms unless you’re VERY confident of the correct identification. Each year around this time nursery customers bring me yellow stainers (Agaricus xanthodermis), thinking they are field mushrooms. They are quite tricky to differentiate from field mushrooms, especially when mature. The buttons have a slightly blocky, boxy shape. The yellow staining when you rub them is the key identifier, but it’s very important that people know that older, open capped stainers often don’t exhibit this trait. But yellow stainers are toxic to many people, and the aptly-named, infamous Death Cap mushroom (Amanita phalloides) is now also present in various public gardens in metropolitan Adelaide (and elsewhere in Australia). You should also follow protocols and pick mushrooms correctly, and be aware of state foraging laws.

If in any doubt, buy fresh wild mushrooms at the markets, where an increasing selection is available – perhaps one day we may see a range to rival that of the markets – or on the dinner plates – of Italy!

Because of the large quantity of imported mulch, my garden has many interesting fungi like these tiny white ones.

Tiny white fungi in my garden mulch

Tiny white fungi in my garden mulch

Huge orange fungi which collapse into a pile of what looks like vomit

Huge orange fungi which collapse into a pile of what looks like vomit

And at maturity, this huge orange fungus collapses into what looks unpleasantly like a puddle of diarrhoea, or vomit.

Others fungi in my garden are orange, or grey….

and there are also patches of one of the infamous – or famous! – psilocybin-containing ‘magic mushroom’ species.

It’s illegal to collect or use these hallucinogenic magic mushrooms, but in any case I was put off them decades ago when a fellow university student ate too much ‘blue meanie’ soup and ended up in a week-long coma!

Hiking in New Zealand's giant beech forests

Hiking in New Zealand’s giant beech forests

But, for mycophiles, New Zealand’s Southern Alps is a veritable fungi paradise. When Geoff and I went hiking there earlier this year, the number and variety of fungi in the damp, green beech forests was breath-taking. They came in every colour, size and shape, and I reckon most gardeners would be as captivated by them as I was!

Fungi are classified like plants into families, genera, and species, but a more practical field classification tool for neophyte mycologists like me is the “morphogroup” system, which groups fungi according to their shape (they may not be related genetically).

All of us are already familiar with many of these morphogroups. There’s the standard gilled agaric, with marvellous variations on the standard field mushroom:

Others are chanterelles, with gills extending down the stem, and morels, with their lacey caps, and boletes, with a spongey undersurface. As children, we stepped on puffballs and earthstars.

In New Zealand, marvellous leathery bracket (shelf or shell-shaped) fungi grew on almost every tree and log, with older ones creating a substrate for mosses and other plants (Ganoderma af. Applanatum).

We saw tooth fungi

Tooth fungiand jelly fungi

Jelly fungiand ones that didn’t really resemble anything (possibly Tremella sp).

Some didn't seem to resemble any fungi groupThere were scatological ones (Hypoxylon sp.),

Hypoxylon sp

Hypoxylon sp

and ones that themselves seemed to have another fungus growing on them…

And finally, there were the delicate bryophytes (mosses, liverworts and hornworts), that thrived in great sheets and carpets on tree trunks and on rocks. The richness and variety were so inspiring that I snapped way too many images!

If you were a young mycologist or bryologist, it would be incredibly exciting to study this area of New Zealand because so much of it has been so little explored, and there is so much diversity, that there must be a myriad of new discoveries to make!

And if you’re an Aussie gardener and your interest is whetted, why not join your local fungi research group to learn more about these amazing non-plants?

PS: If any mycologist or bryologist can identify any of my images, please do so!


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Helen McKerral

About Helen McKerral

Horticultural journalist, photographer, contributor to many garden magazines, and author of 'Gardening on a Shoestring'. Adelaide Hills, South Australia

6 thoughts on “Magic(al) mushrooms

  1. There’s a fantastic “novel” about bryophytes called The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert. So much to learn, so little time…

    • Oh yes, Anne-Marie, I’ve read it, indeed it’s a wonderful book. My mother’s side of the family is dutch and the portrayal of that Dutch reserve was beautifully done. In fact, the whole book was a delight!

  2. In Cairns , on hot steamy Summer nights, we have occasionally seen a “Glow in the Dark” fungi. Rotting timber is the host growing medium. I remember seeing it also in the Borneo jungles. The fungi’s growth on fallen trees was so prolific that even in the dark, the bioluminescence allowed us to view the forest around

  3. Hi, just wondering the name of the orange collapsing fungi as I often get it in my garden & was wondering if they are edible?

    • I don’t think so, Sam… and from the smell of them you would definitely not want to eat them even if they weren’t poisonous! Blecchhh, disgusting! There are facebook mycological/fungi groups you can join to learn more about fungi.

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