The Elf of Plants They Call Mushroom
TerraGreen|March 2021
Thomas Carlyle had said once, ‘Thou fool! Nature alone is antique, and the oldest art a mushroom; the idle crag thou sittest on is six thousand years of age.’ Isn’t it a fact that we haven’t yet grown big enough to realize the benevolence of nature that has long been arming us to the teeth against all odds?—writes Rajshekhar Pant.
Rajshekhar Pant
The emergence of mushrooms from the soil and a plant-like sedentary growth that they have, along with the accreditations of her times may have mistakenly earned from Emily Dickenson—a nineteenth century Amherst Poet—the title of ‘plant’ for mushrooms, which they are essentially not. They do not have chlorophyll and they obtain their nutrition from metabolizing non-living organic matter. In scientific classification, they belong to the group called saprophytes. A number of capped mushrooms having an elfin appearance contributing to the traditional images of elves, dwarves and leprechauns, etc., have been instrumental in triggering curiosity among a large number of artists, like the fifteenth century Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosh of The Garden of Earthly Delights fame to Siana Gavin, the London-based visual artist of our times. Emily Dickenson of course was no exception. Several other literati have also made mushrooms a subject of their writings. Mushrooms do have a long history in magic and folklore too. Fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) introduced to Southern Hemisphere somewhat unintentionally as a symbiont with pine and birch plantation had been well known in several ancient cultures and civilizations for its hallucinogenic properties. Mushroom stones discovered from the sites of Mayan civilization, the poisoning of Claudius—the predecessor of infamous Nero, and several shamanistic rituals associated with mushrooms the world over, allude towards the sense of wonder with which mushrooms were looked at in the ancient world. Interestingly, R Gordon Wasson, an American author and ethno-mycologist had even proposed that the ‘Soma’ talked about in the Rig Veda, was actually the extract of a mushroom with psychoactive constituents.

Mushrooms grow in all sizes and shapes and depending on where you live you might find them anywhere on ground or on wood during the rainy season. In my region, that is, the Central Himalayan hills, peeking out into the backyards, garden or the neighbouring woods following a rainstorm in monsoon season enables you to see the mushroom galore popping up. Besides snuggling among the ferns and deciduous trees, these tiny spores may be seen emerging from the turf to form a ring—often referred to in tales as fairy ring. The Central Himalayan region is extremely rich in wild mushrooms. Though quite a few mushrooms found here are edible and distinguishable from their toxic lookalikes, yet consuming these fungal growths happened to be a taboo among the upper casts. Even the ethnomedicine cornucopia in this region does hardly bear any important reference to mushrooms. Since its consumption was confined to the lowest and poverty-stricken strata of the society who happened to be the inheritors of the traditional wisdom of identifying the edible species derogatory shades also got associated with its collection and consumption. In the past few years, its traditional consumers have also dissociated themselves from it due to the vertical mobility in their lifestyle. The traditional wisdom used for identifying the edible species of fungus is disappearing fast in hills. Now only tribals in the Himalayan heights and a handful of old-timers in remote villages are its last bastion. Ironically, the consumption of cultivated button mushrooms in the meanwhile has become commonplace in hills.

With the advent of rainy season in Nainital—a hotspot of wild mushroom in hills—Vinod Pande and Pradeep Pande, both amateur naturalists, have over the years been visiting the neighbouring wilderness for mushroom hunt. While sharing the pictures of different edible mushroom species from the region, they acquainted me with some interesting facts about these picturesque fungi.

Field or meadow mushrooms (Agaricus campestris) growing in lawn and beds in colder regions bear a close resemblance to their cultivated brethren called button mushrooms (Agaricus biosporus). Meadow mushrooms along with horse mushrooms (Agaricus arvensis) are the most sought after edible species from the wild. A particular mushroom called yellow stainer (Agaricus xanthodermus), which is toxic, is often confused with meadow mushroom. The flesh or ball of yellow stainer bruises chrome yellow as opposed to the dingy reddish brown of the meadow one. Most of the lookalike mushrooms are identified by practising and mastering these petty differences with keen observation. Stressing on the need of patience and precaution while collecting mushrooms from the wild, Pradeep says smilingly, ‘there are old mushroom hunters and also bold mushroom hunters but you can never find an old mushroom hunter who is also bold.’ Field mushroom enhances secretion of insulin and is effective in treating ulcers, bed sores, scalds, and burns.

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