I’m not very good at recognising different types of mushrooms and toadstools. I’ve been on an organised fungi foray over at Gamlingay Woods, I’ve taken pictures and put them on iSpot, but I can rarely remember what they are called or remember having seen them before. In fact I can count on two fingers the ones I can recognise and name immediately on sight. This, is one of them.
This is a shaggy ink cap (Coprinus comatus) – comatus means hairy and refers to the scales that are clear once the cap has pushed out of the ground. They pop up all over the place and are widespread across Europe and North America. In fact, if you are an urban naturalist then you are in luck because they are often found in the green spaces in towns.
They first form as little egg-shaped white caps peeping out of the soil, and, as they grow the gills turn from white to pink to black as they liquefy themselves to death from the edges forming an inky like substance as they spread their spores. In the end there is just a white stem with some inky remains at the top.
They are supposedly edible, although not that tasty and not poisonous, but have to be eaten pretty quickly as they will have liquified themselves within a couple of hours of picking. However, as with all mushrooms you need to really know your stuff to prevent accidentally picking something poisonous.
One of the many things that I find mysterious in life is how anybody becomes an expert at identifying Fungi (and flies for that matter). I have been on a fungi foraging / identification course and came back none the wiser. I think this is in part because there are so many little brown jobs (bit like bird watching I suppose), some of which are even called ‘deceivers’ because they look like some other type of mystery mushroom. However, there are some mushrooms that even a lazy idiot like me can identify, fly agaric is one, and shaggy ink caps (coprinus comatus) are another.
Fly agaric is the fairy tale red toadstool with white bits on the top and is to be avoided at all costs as it is pretty toxic. Shaggy ink cap on the other hand is edible, but this is only recommended if picked when young and eaten almost straight away. You have probably all noticed shaggy ink caps at some point, but just passed them by – when young they look a bit uninteresting, just white, cylindrical mushrooms covered with scales. However, as they mature they start to change colour, and look much prettier. Unfortunately for the fungus this is because as it degrades, which it can do in the space of a day, its gills start to change colour and secrete a blank ink as it autodigests itself. Despite the cold weather there are still a few about, such as the one I took a picture of (which also left my fingers a little blackened as I moved some of the grass out of the way to get a better shot).
Pickers beware though, there is also a common ink cap which is more fawn in colour than white with which the shaggy ink cap could be confused – if eaten within a few hours of consuming alcohol then nausea and vomiting will occur. Best be on the safe side and leave the foraging to the experts and fungi in the wild for photographers and nature spotters to enjoy.