The great mushroom bonanza: ‘A walk down the lane has become an exotic passing parade of the edible and the damnably, deadly beautiful’

The weather we've had this autumn means that mushrooms have mushroomed — and award-winning Nature writer John Lewis-Stempel is delighted.

Foreigners have always been rude about our weather. Gauis Tacitus (AD56–120) set the pattern, describing the climate of these isles as ‘pretty foul, with frequent rain and fog’. Wet and warm, in other words, just like our ale. ‘Nothing but mist,’ moaned Marx.

Are we not having the last laugh, however? The British weather, which is generally benevolent, avoiding extremes, has excelled itself in its moist moderation these past weeks. Keats’s famous words that our autumn is the ‘season of mists and mellow fruitfulness/Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun’ has been proven — and then some. October, far from being a curtain-raiser to winter, has resembled a second spring, with roses re-blooming around the cottage door. Nothing in Nature has benefited from these days of extra-clemency, however, as much as the humble mushroom.

Mushrooms, as it were, have mushroomed. Woodland has burst with blewits and the golf course erupted in puffballs (to the confusion of those in plaid, as they seek lost balls at the ninth.) Breakfasts have been mouth-wateringly improved by the addition of ceps — what foodies call porcini — discovered, weirdly, underneath the tree in the garden.

In the great mushroom bonanza, a walk down the lane has become an exotic passing parade of the edible and the damnably, deadly beautiful. Like bright jewels scattered in the verge, amethyst deceiver, chanterelle, death cap and bronze cap have tantalised us. Perhaps, on some fallen bough, the sighting of a scarlet elf cap the name of this mushroom is quietly, folklorically significant.

A cluster of Scarlet Elf Cup fungus (Sarcoscypha coccinea) growing in mossy woodland in Cumbria.

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Mushrooms, which apparently materialise overnight, have long been thought things of mystery, the fief of the elves, dwarves, and pixies, hence ‘fairy rings’ for the inexplicable circles of mushrooms on the morning lawn. Old country people believed that fairy rings were the secret midnight ballroom of the little folk, which seems risible until one tries to comprehend the science of mushrooms.

A mushroom is the brief observable fruit of a fungal body that, under the surface of things, may spread its roots greater than the 2,600sq ft ballroom of Claridge’s. If this is insufficiently mind-warping, one only needs to know that fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants. Indeed, they do taste pleasantly fleshy, as the slugs and rodents agree, gnawing wayside mushrooms into fantastic Gothic sculptures.

In the UK, there are more than 15,000 types of mushroom. Our weather seems to encourage the mushroomy multitude, in species and in mass. Lucky us. Mushrooms, in so many ways, are magical.