How I discovered mushrooms and mycology

My involvement in mycology started many years ago, in the early ‘Fifties. I went one morning to visit a friend. When I arrived at his house and was about to ring the bell, the door opened and there he was, holding a basket. “Nice to see you, Shimon. I am going out to collect mushrooms. Why don’t you come along. It is not far.” So I went with him. We came to a small conifer wood, next to the Hayarkon river. It was February, the end of the rainy season. He was collecting mushrooms which looked similar to field mushrooms but had more brownish caps.

The idea of collecting mushrooms appealed to me. While collecting, I naturally bumped into other species which were not familiar to me. I bought a book about mushrooms. It contained only 16 species with their pictures and descriptions, and many of the new mushrooms that I found were not in this book.

A few years passed, and my knowledge of fungi did not increase beyond the only book I had on the subject. One Saturday, on a nice summer day, I happened to visit somebody in a kibbutz. Walking around, I noticed small mushrooms growing on the lawn. I did not know what they were. I asked some kibbutz members, if they were edible? “Of course not!” they answered. I continued my investigation: “Has anybody eaten them and been poisoned?” “We are not that stupid.” was their answer.

The answer did not sound scientific enough for me, so I decided to try these mushrooms myself and find out if they were poisonous or not. One thing I made sure was that the mushrooms were not the deadly Amanita toadstools. I wanted to find out if they would give me an upset stomach or not. The stupidity of that experiment entered my brain only later on. It was 4 o’clock in the afternoon when I took a small piece of the mushroom, not bigger than half a penny piece, maybe even smaller, and swallowed it. At seven o’clock that same evening I left the kibbutz to go back home. I walked up to the main road and was lucky enough to find an empty seat in a sherut taxi. As I paid the driver and the taxi started to move, I felt an upheaval in my stomach. This became worse and worse. I asked the taxi driver to stop and let me out.

I got out, climbed over a small mound so that I would not be seen from the road, and spewed up whatever there was inside me, which took quite a while. In the meantime the sun had set and the skies had darkened. I could see on the horizon the lights of Tel-Aviv. This horizon was unsteady. It moved up and down, turned horizontal and vertical, round in a circle and back to its starting point. I said to myself, “Shimon, you must reach a hospital!”

When the upheaval slowed down a little I returned to the road to look for a bus stop. It was the main road between Haifa and Tel-Aviv and buses were frequent. I walked along until I found a bus stop. After a short while a bus stopped. I stepped in and said to the driver: “Bellinson Hospital.” “Sorry,” The bus driver answered, without looking at me. “I am Tel-Aviv express, I don’t stop at Bellinson.” “Please, “I begged him. “I need Bellinson Hospital.” “I told you, I am express Tel-Aviv. If you want Bellinson, wait for the next bus.” “I cannot wait. I need to reach the hospital.” The driver got agitated. “I will not move until you get out.” And he turned off the engine. Some of the passengers started to shout at me “get off you bastard!” I did not say a thing and I did not move. Suddenly the driver looked at me, something he had not done before. Without a word he started the engine and moved on.

At the hospital he stopped and opened the door. I walked towards the hospital, reached the emergency room, said “mushroom”, and collapsed. I remember having gained consciousness twice for short periods. The first time somebody was checking my pupils. The second time I opened my eyes and found myself lying under an X-ray machine. When I finally woke up, it was daytime. I was lying in a hospital bed with my legs raised up high. In each of my arms a needle was stuck in my veins. Each needle was connected to a plastic pipe delivering drops of clear liquid from a high up hung bottle. I was very thirsty and asked for water. The nurse refused to give me water to drink but wetted my lips with a damp sponge. After twenty four hours she took the tubes away. I spent two more days in the hospital before I was allowed to go home.

Now I had a goal to find out what was the mushroom that had made me so ill. I checked up-to-date mycological publications and found that the Latin name of the culprit was Lepiota morgani, a common parasol mushroom on watered lawns in the summer. Later on I found out that this was a misnomer, the real name of this mushroom was Chlorophylum molybdites and the mycological literature is full of reports of poisoning by this toadstool.

When I came to Britain and settled down in London I resumed the search for edible fungi. Very soon I had to admit that my knowledge was limited. I started to read books on the subject and in one of these books: “Mushrooms and toadstools” by John Ramsbottom, I found the mention of the BMS, the British Mycological Society. I joined the society and there I started to learn about the different genera and species of fungi. Although the general public in Britain is adverse to wild fungi and refer to them as toadstools, Britain is one of the leading countries in taxonomy of fungi as a scientific discipline. Being a member of the British Mycological Society taught me a lot. Actually it taught me everything I know today about fungi. Twice a year, at spring time and in the autumn we have forays and once a year we go abroad. In these forays, each of them lasting a week, we collect all sorts of fungi, identify and record them. I record them by painting them in water colour.

After acquiring general knowledge of fungi, a process that took a few years, I started to specialise. I was particularly interested in those genera where it is difficult to tell the species apart. One of these genera is known as Inocybe and the other is known as Cortinarius. The reason why the species are difficult to identify is different in each genera. In Inocybe, the difficulty of identifying species lies in the fact that many species look similar. The difficulty of Cortinarius is that the genus is very big – it contains nearly a thousand species. To solve the problem of identification I used the computer. First I built a database of the different species and then I created identification keys. Now I’m able to identify most of the species of these difficult genera that I find.