Review of Mushrooms: A Natural and Cultural History

Mushrooms: A Natural and Cultural History by Nicholas P. Money. Reaktion Books, 2017, 200pp, 93 illustrations, 67 in colour; hardback, £20

Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies produced by 16,000 species of fungi classified as basidiomycetes. As such, they are neither plants nor animals, although molecular evidence suggests a shared ancestry between fungi and animals. Like icebergs, what you see is only a fraction of the whole. The fruiting body is one stage in the life cycle of a microorganism that lives below ground, where the mushroom colonies or mycelia can spread over a vast area. You might be surprised to learn that the world’s largest organism is thought to be a 2,400 year-old honey fungus spread over 10 square kilometres in Oregon, USA. A single mushroom can release billions of spores, so it is perhaps just as well that the chances of a single spore landing in a place where it can germinate, form a colony and mate with another mycelium is as low as one in a billion.

Although mushrooms may not be essential eating (the author contends that “their tastes are often overrated and they have very little nutritional value”), they are a vital component of life on Earth. Forests and grasslands would collapse without the support of healthy populations of fungi, although some species are considerably less plant-friendly, including the pathogenic fungus Moniliophthora perniciosa, which has devastated cocoa plantations in South America. We should also reflect on the essential role that fungi play in the recycling of nutrients and the decomposition of waste products, including some plastics and other synthetic materials.

Mushrooms is not a field guide or a cookery book (there are no recipes), but it would make an excellent introductory textbook for a budding mycologist, or an attractive gift for a mushroom enthusiast. The book is superbly and colourfully illustrated, with many useful diagrams spread over sixteen chapters including mushroom superstition, evolution, ecology, poisons and conservation, to name some of the more eye-catching chapter titles. One of the most entertaining chapters profiles some famous historical mycologists including Arthur Henry Reginald Buller (1874-1944), the so-called ‘Einstein of mycology’, whose eccentricities included strapping horse blinders to his head in order to preserve his night vision whilst conducting experiments on bioluminescent mushrooms. The author surely merits inclusion in a list of contemporary experts: when it comes to mushrooms, Nicholas P. Money is right on the button.

Paul Appleby

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