The survey begins with fungi lore from mythology and legends, focusing particularly on the plants' association with devils, witches, and fairies. A balanced portrait of fungi in the real world considers not only the ruin caused by the plants but also their uses in medicine and industry and as foods. Ranging far and wide in its topics, the narrative offers a light touch and plenty of enthusiasm, making this book fun for everyone with even a casual interest in mushrooms. In addition, serious mushroom hunters will find this volume a practical reference and a fascinating resource for leisurely browsing.
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The Romance of the Fungus World
An Account of Fungus Life in its Numerous Guises Bothreal and Legendary
By R. T. Rolfe, F. W. Rolfe
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 2014 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
"Where I was wont to seeke the honey Bee,
Working her formall rowmes in wexen frame,
The grieslie Tode-stoole growne there mought I se
And loathed Paddocks lording on the same."
—1579, Spenser, The Shepheard's Calendar.
"December," 12., 67-70.
"When Flora's lovelier tribes give place,
The Mushroom's scorn'd but curious race
Bestud the moist autumnal earth;
A quick but perishable birth,
Inlaid with many a brilliant die
Of Nature's high-wrought tapestry."
In the autumn, when woods are bare, and "when, o'er the half-world, Nature seems dead," the toadstools and the like appear; at first a scattered few, and later, if the weather be kind to them, in their hosts. True, at all seasons some representatives of this peculiar tribe are to be found, but it is in the decline of the year, when all Nature is damp and dripping, that these queer fellows spring up in such profusion as to force themselves upon the attention of even the least observant. Nurtured in death and decay, often bizarre of form and lurid of colour, some bloated and leering, others dainty and graceful, all appearing and often disappearing in such uncanny fashion, these pariahs of the plant world have been for ages at once a source of wonder and of loathing to the uninitiated. In a day gone by, their appearance in unwonted numbers was of ill-augury to mankind, not that they wrought the evil, but the mischance which brought the one may well have increased the ravages of the other. Thus in the year 1348, when the Black Death devastated the country, it is recorded in the olden chronicles that, after the lowering of a mighty storm-cloud until it filled the heavens, rain fell almost unceasingly for over two months, so that the crops rotted in the fields, and ruin and desolation brooded over all. "The rain had ceased at last, and a sickly autumn sun shone upon a land which was soaked and sodden with water. Wet and rotten leaves reeked and festered under the foul haze which rose from the woods. The fields were spotted with monstrous fungi of a size and colour never matched before—scarlet and mauve and liver and black. It was as though the sick earth had burst into foul pustules; mildew and lichen mottled the walls, and with that filthy crop, Death sprang also from the water-soaked earth."
That these foul fungi spring up from the ruin of all that is fair and beautiful is, perhaps, a not unnatural belief; but whether or no, it is one which has gradually erected against them a barrier of prejudice, through which only a few useful members have been allowed to creep. In 1857, Berkeley, the father of British mycology, referred to the popular antipathy to fungi, "which, from the poisonous qualities, the evanescent nature, and the loathsome mass of putrescence presented in decay by many species, have become a byword among the vulgar," and thirty years later Hay expressed excellently the same popular view-point: "Among this vast family of plants, belonging to one class, yet diverse from one another, comprising more than a thousand distinct species indigenous to these islands, there is but one kind that Englishmen condescend to regard with favour. All the rest are lumped together in one sweeping condemnation. They are looked upon as vegetable vermin, only made to be destroyed. No eye can see their beauties; their office is unknown; their varieties are not regarded; they are hardly allowed a place among Nature's lawful children, but are considered something abnormal, worthless, and inexplicable. By precept and example children are taught from earliest infancy to despise, loathe, and avoid all kinds of 'toadstools.' The individual who desires to engage in the study of them must boldly face a good deal of scorn. He is laughed at for his strange taste among the better classes, and is actually regarded as a sort of idiot among the lower orders. No fad or hobby is esteemed so contemptible as that of the 'fungus-hunter' or 'toadstool-eater.'
"This popular sentiment, which we may coin the word 'Fungophobia' to express, is very curious. If it were human—that is, universal—one would be inclined to set it down as an instinct, and to reverence it accordingly. But it is not human—it is merely British. It is so deep and intense a prejudice that it amounts to a national superstition. Fungophobia is merely a form of ignorance, of course; but its power over the British mind is so immense, that the mycologist, anxious to impart the knowledge he has gleaned to others, often meets with scarcely credence or respect."
Although education has more recently swept away many misconceptions, this distaste still lingers on, and finds outlet even nowadays in the insensate wrath with which these outcasts are often shattered by a militant walking-stick, or ground to pulp 'neath a hostile heel.
Yet these denizens of the woodland and meadow are something more than mere blots upon an autumnal landscape, for, on closer observation, many of them are seen to be of curious form and singular beauty. Thus they may appear as cups and goblets, as globes, as a bird's nest filled with eggs, as corals and sponges, as a delicate network resembling a diminutive cage, and indeed of an infinite variety of form and shade.
"Whose tapering stems, robust or light,
Like columns catch the searching sight;
Like fair umbrellas, furl'd or spread
Display their many-coloured head,
Grey, purple, yellow, white or brown,
A Grecian shield, or prelate's crown,
Like Freedom's cap or friar's cowl,
Or China's bright inverted bowl."
The most common form with stalk and cap may display the most brilliant tints of crimson or golden, often diversified with spots or patches of a different colour, or may exhibit that delicacy of form which only Nature can give. And thus for their beauty alone they have appeared to some in very different guise than that of abhorrence, as being no less worthy than the trees and the flowers of the attention of the Nature-lover.
"He that high grouth on cedars did bestowe,
Gave also lowly mushrumpes leave to growe."
It was the beauty of the scarlet and orange elf-cups (Pezizae) (Fig. 11), which first directed the attention of two distinguished mycologists, Persoon and Battarra, to the study of the fungi, Persoon being one of the first to systematize the classification of these plants.
Nor are they merely ornamental, or, as some would have it, the reverse, and the curious observer may speculate as to the place they fill in the great scheme of Nature. And since every heap of decaying vegetable matter will be found sustaining a multitude of these growths, many small or even of microscopic dimensions, it is evident that they are the agents of dissolution, not only breaking down the dead matter which would otherwise cumber the soil with an ever-increasing mass of débris, but converting it to a form which can again be absorbed to make fresh growth. To appreciate something of their work, one need but imagine for a moment the woods free of toadstools and their allies, and, therefore, free from decay; the ground choked with the leaves and branches of countless ages which refuse to moulder, the trees themselves stark and lifeless, smothered from above by their own substance and starved below by the lack of necessary liquid food for their roots. Such a scene would be even more desolate than that which normally presents itself in the fall of the year. These plants thus act as vegetable vultures, and as such, help to preserve Nature's balance, by removing the remains of those which have fallen in the great ever-raging battle for existence.
The relatively harmless and even beneficent toadstools and puff-balls, so numerous in themselves, are, however, but a small section of that large and ubiquitous tribe, the fungi, and of these as a whole the vast majority, unfortunately for man, have linked forces against him, and these, although generally so small as to be quite unnoticed and unknown, are legion in number, great in power and devastating in effect. Of them the rusts, smuts and mildews decimate his crops, the moulds spoil his foods, while others more daring attack even himself. His progress through life is dogged by these diminutive marauders, who only await conditions suitable for attack, and who are responsible for incalculable losses to him.
True, it is to some of these minute fungi that man owes his ale, wine, and all such "hot and rebellious liquors," his vinegar and the lightness of his bread; but the number so ministering to his needs is few, and their virtues are apt to pale into insignificance beside the vices of the many.
Small wonder is it, then, in the absence of that knowledge which brings tolerance, and which it will be our aim to supply, that the fungi in general have been regarded with the antipathy to which reference has already been made, an antipathy so strong that it has been woven into our folk-tales, and finds expression in the pages of our writers, both of prose and of poem.CHAPTER 2
The Fungi in Mythology and Folk-lore
"Now shift the scene to moonlight glade,
Where dapper elves beneath the shade Of oak or elm,
their revels keep,
What time we plodding mortals sleep."
—Spirit of the Woods.
"They in their courses make that round,
In meadows and in marshes found,
By them socalled the Fairy ground."
—1627, Drayton, Nymphidia, 71.
The first observers of the fungi had obviously little exact knowledge of the workings of the natural world. It is thus not surprising that they had recourse to the supernatural to account for the extraordinary characters of these plants. Certainly such was the case, and their association with those mythical beings, the fairies, witches and so forth, was the result.
This probably originated in times of which no records now remain, but in mediaeval times, when superstition was rife, and even until quite recently, the belief in the supposed connection of toadstools, and the like, with fairies, was a very common one, and many are the references founded upon this basis.
The Fairy Rings.—An ancient tradition has it that after the wee people had joined hands and danced together in a ring on a midsummer evening, their tracks were to be seen as fairy-rings on the meadows, and the toadstools growing in them did but serve as seats for tired elves:
"And nightly, meadow-fairies, look you sing
Like to the Garter's compass, in a ring
Th' expressure that it bears, green let it be
More fertile fresh than all the field to see."
The beauty and regularity of outline of these rings, which, of course, are caused by the growth of the toadstools, have often excited the wonder of the casual observer, and it is not surprising that various strange conjectures have been made concerning them. In those days of early superstition in Europe it was generally held that they were caused by the dancing of the fairies, and to this belief, picturesque expression has often been given in poem and fable, indeed, until long after our faith in fairies had deserted us, and the more prosaic explanation of the rings had become well known. Thus Browne describes:
"A pleasant mead,
Where fairies often did their measures tread,
Which in the meadows made such circles green,
As if with garlands it had crownéd been.
Within one of these rounds was to be seen
A hillock rise, where oft the fairy-queen
At twilight sat."
Pope, in that inimitable example of ludicrous poetry, "The Rape of the Lock," speaks:
"Of airy elves, by moonlight shadows seen,
The silver token and the circled green."
Collins relates that "twilight fairies tread the circled green," which might almost owe its inspiration to the last quotation, and Tennyson also refers to "the fairy footings on the grass." Shakespeare more than once suggests that the making of rings was one of the fairy duties, and not merely a daytime memory of their moonlight revels, and in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," a fairy says to Puck:
"And I serve the fairy queen
To dew her orbs upon the green."
Superstitions concerning the Rings. In the sixteenth century, however, the belief in fairies was falling on evil days, and until its recent curious revival, it had generally almost disappeared as a popular superstition in this country, although occasionally still surviving here and there, while certain curious beliefs relating to the rings were current in quite recent times.
Most people have heard of the old West-country superstition, which holds that if a maiden desires to improve her complexion, it is only necessary to go out early on a May morning, and rub the dew from the grass on her face. It is doubtless still practised. It is, however, not so generally known that, for this purpose, one must avoid the grass growing within the circles, or the fairies may revenge themselves on the rash intruder into their sanctuaries by spoiling her complexion. A similar idea is expressed by the old Scots' proverb:
"He wha tills the fairy green,
Nae luck again sail hae."
It was a further popular belief that even by stepping inside the rings, one would put oneself within the fairies' power, perhaps with unfortunate results. Whether sheep do avoid the grass of the rings, the coarser growth found encircling the bare ring being presumably that in question, we have not been able to observe. Shakespeare certainly says so in the following passage:
"You demy-puppets, that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites; and you, whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrooms."
Even as recently as the year 1869, a contributor to "Notes and Queries "appears fully to believe in the fairy origin of the rings, and says:
"My informant stated that he had often seen the rings left on the grass where they had been dancing, but he had never seen any of the little folks himself."
A variant of the usual legend, which was believed in some parts of Devonshire not many years ago, was that the rings were caused by the fairies catching the colts found in the fields and riding them round and round.
Other superstitions connected with the rings are mentioned by Ramsbottom as current in different countries:
"That in England was that the circular growths marked the paths of dancing fairies ... and that they brought good luck to the houses built in fields in which they occurred. French peasants could not be induced to enter the rings because enormous toads with bulging eyes abounded there ... In Germany the bare portion of the ring marked the place where a glowing dragon had rested after his nocturnal wanderings. A very prevalent belief was that such rings marked the presence of treasures which could not be obtained without the aid of the fairies or witches. The earliest scientific explanations were almost as fantastic—thunder, lightning, whirlwinds, ants, moles, haystacks, animal urine and such being considered the causal agents."
There has lately been a recrudescence of faith in the existence of fairies, and the rings also figure in the story. The great protagonist of the case for the fairies, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, although agreeing that the belief that these circles are caused by the beat of the fairy feet is certainly untenable, somewhat ingeniously, but not altogether convincingly, advances the following idea:
"It might be asserted and could not be denied that the rings once formed, whatever their cause, would offer a very charming course for a circular ring-a-ring dance. Certainly from all time these circles have been associated with the gambols of the little people."
Nor is it only in this country that popular belief has connected toadstools with fairies, and as far away as India the same relationship is found, one of the vernacular names for the Common Mushroom (Psalliota campestris) being recorded by Watt as "Kullalic-div," "the Fairies' Cap."
Puff-balls and Fairies. Elves and toadstools are in truth indissolubly linked together, not only in the matter of meadow rings, for other tricksy sprites were said to sow the puff-balls. Here, if any introduction be needed, let us present Puck—a fairy, and merry wanderer of the night, "rough, knurly-limbed, faun-faced, and shock-pated, a very Shetlander among the gossamer-winged "fairies around him. He deserves adequate recognition because, according to some, it was Puck who gave his name to the puff-ball.
Fairy Butter, etc. Several different fungi have at various times been associated with the fairies, as is shown by the local names under which they are stated to be known. Thus Brand tells us that
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Table of Contents
II. THE FUNGI IN MYTHOLOGY AND FOLK-LORE,
III. THE FUNGI IN FICTION,
IV. THE FUNGI IN REALITY: THEIR STRUCTURE AND CHARACTERISTICS,
V. THE FUNGI IN REALITY: THEIR MODES OF EXISTENCE,
VI. THE DAMAGE CAUSED BY FUNGI AND ITS EFFECT ON MANKIND,
VII. THE USES OF FUNGI: IN MEDICINE,
VIII. THE USES OF FUNGI: IN INDUSTRY,
IX. THE USES OF FUNGI: AS FOODS,
X. THE CULTIVATED FUNGI AND OTHER FUNGUS FOODS OF COMMERCE,
XI. THE POISONOUS FUNGI,
XII. THE CURIOUS PHENOMENA EXHIBITED BY FUNGI,
XIII. THE STUDY OF THE FUNGI AS A HOBBY,
XIV. SOME FURTHER HISTORICAL ASPECTS OF THE FUNGI,
XV. THE DERIVATíON OF FUNGUS NAMES,