For centuries epicures have used certain fungi for food. The Greeks and Romans esteemed them highly, and gave a great deal of consideration to favourable times and places for gathering them, and to choice methods of preparing them for the table. Juvenal tells us of one old Roman enthusiast who was so carried away by his love for them as to exclaim, "Keep your corn, O Libya, unyoke your oxen, provided only you send us mushrooms! " Horace says that mushrooms which grow in the fields are the best, and that one can have but little faith in other kinds. Mushroom eaters of the present day would perhaps not agree with him, for they find edible species in every imaginable place where fungi grow, and are constantly adding to their list new varieties which they esteem delicious.
Although for centuries it has been known that some fungi contain most virulent poisons, still, through ignorance of those points which distinguish the poisonous from the edible, frequent cases of poisoning occur in all classes of society. The mistakes resulting in death have been frequent enough to inspire the timid with an overpowering dread of all fungi, while the damp and grewsome places in which many fungi flourish have caused them to be despised by others. The following lines from Shelley very aptly express the general sentiment :
" And plants, at whose names the verse feels loath, Fill'd the place with a monstrous undergrowth, Prickly and pulpous, and blistering and blue, Livid, and starr'd with a lurid dew.
" And agarics and fungi, with mildew and mould, Started like mist from the wet ground cold ; Pale, fleshy, as if the decaying dead With a spirit of growth had been animated."
Shelley: " The Sensitive Plant."
To many people the only growths known as fungi are toadstools and mushrooms. They give the name mushrooms to the species known to them as edible, and regard all other similar growths as toadstools, things uncanny or poisonous.
" The grisly todestool grown there mought I see, And loathed paddocks [toads] lording on the same."
Spenser's " Faerie Queene."
This distinction has no scientific basis, and in fact most of the species called toadstools are edible. Fungi are not always the grewsome things of Shelley and Spenser. In their ranks are many which delight the eye with their colouring and the symmetry of their forms. They are the grotesques of nature; nests, hoofs, cups, umbrellas, shells, and clubs are represented, together with spheres, hemispheres, cones, and many other geometrical figures. The mildew on the linen, the mould on food, the rusts and smuts which blight our fields of grain, and the dry rot which crumbles our lumber to dust and which causes old wood in dark places to glow with a weird, pale, flickering light, are all forms of one group or another of these plants which prey upon living or dead organic matter. In ordinary observation, only the simpler and more noticeable fungi are taken into account, but they are in reality met with in almost every situation imaginable. They are found in damp cellars and in rooms shut off from the light ; in fact, some form of fungus will be found in every place and on everything which is not exposed to a circulation of fresh air.
In woods and open fields the attractive forms are found. In shady woods the beautiful white " bear's head " hangs on stately tree trunks, and the "destroying angels" gleam white in the shadows on the ground. Shelving brackets, green or red or brown, encircle old stumps, or stand out stiff and white from the crumbling trunks of fallen moss-grown monarchs of the forest, while wood-brown toadstools huddle in groups among the alien leaves. On the outskirts of the wood, green and red Russulas vie with the flowers in the brilliancy of their colouring. Pink or violet Clavarias, dainty corals, border the wood path, and golden Clavarias lighten up the sombre wood tints with their yellow branches. In dry pastures and along wood roads, puff-balls, large and small, send up their puffs of brown smoke, to the delight of every passing child who strikes them with a wand. On lawns and hillsides the Oreades cause fairy rings to grow. The fairy rings are circles, or parts of circles, of impoverished grass of a lighter colour and less luxuriant growth than that of the grass immediately surrounding the circle. Before the existence of fairy folk came to be doubted, it was firmly believed that these fairy rings were the dancing grounds of the fairies.
" The nimble elves That do by moonshine green sour ringlets make Whereof the ewe bites not ; whose pastime 'tis To make these midnight mushrooms."
Rev. Gerard Smith.
The rings on the commons increase in size until sometimes two or more rings intersect to form a labyrinth of green network. Rings appear year after year in the same place, and then disappear, to reappear after an interval of a few seasons. As long as the fairies existed in the imaginations of the people, it was easy to account for these strange happenings- the fairies danced in the moonshine, and the grass was worn down under their feet. If they were displeased and left the neighbourhood, the rings disappeared too. As this fancy was given up, other solutions of the mystery were sought. Some believed that the ring was caused by a thunder-bolt entering the ground at this spot, and still others were confident that it was caused by moles. The true solution is not hard to find, to one familiar with the habit of growth of the fungus plant. One fungus plant growing alone upon the lawn will soon exhaust the soil directly beneath it of all true fungus food. Of all the spores which fall from the parent plant only those will grow which fall without this impoverished spot, and so a ring of toadstools is formed. Again, only those spores which fall outside the ring will find good fungus food, and so the ring widens always outward, forming a perfect circle, unless something on one side or other interferes with its travels. The decaying ring of fungi temporarily stimulates the grass around it, so that its rich colour stands out in circles or arcs of circles against the less highly nourished grass. Such rings are conspicuous on the lawns of the White House at Washington, and are often to be seen well defined on distant hillsides.
Brackets and mushrooms and puffballs grow in warm, moist places where they find decaying wood and leaves to feed upon. Old tree trunks and fallen logs, rich leaf mould, and cattle pastures are their favourite haunts.
The reason for their choice of place is invariably connected with the question of food, for fungi can thrive only where they can obtain organic matter, as they have lost the power which all green plants have of feeding on inorganic or mineral matter. All plants must have food with which to form plant flesh. Green plants by means of their leaf green - the only agent in the world which has the power to turn lifeless mineral matter into living matter - take the element carbon from the air, and hydrogen gas and oxygen gas from water, and with their green granules, by some mysterious process, make of the elements hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon, compounds of wood and starch and sugar. Fungus plants have none of this leaf green and must therefore feed on material which has been manufactured by green plants.
To define fungi simply, so as to include all the varieties, would be a difficult task ; but in general it may be said that they are plants which have no leaf green and which do not grow from true seeds, but from dustlike bodies resembling in appearance the yellow pollen of roses or lilies.
The fungi have no flowers and produce no seeds. They produce spores instead, fine dust-like particles, which are borne in special places on the mature plant, whether a mould or mildew, a toadstool, puffball, or bracket. The cap of a mushroom placed right side up on a piece of paper under an inverted glass will print with its spores a picture of the radiating leaves or gills beneath. A slight blow on a puffball in the pasture will cause a puff of smoke-like dust to rise from it - really millions of spores that have ripened inside the puffball and are now ready to grow into new puffball plants when they fall on favourable soil.