Badgers and the devil’s fungus.

Back in the summer I spent hours and hours in my local woods enjoying nature with all my senses. I was going through a strange time of huge transition in my life and this was my sanctuary. The sight of the green trees was soothing and the familiar path round the woods that I pounded several times a day had a rhythm that was calming. The birds were singing sweetly and it all helped restore me. Nature is my way of rebooting my soul. I immerse myself in it and its like it clears my memory cache and gives me a factory reset. Oh, and the smell…

Not quite flowers or freshly mown hay, but more …

Dead badger!

I love a mushroom. Seriously. I went on holiday to Scotland  and took hundreds of fungi photos, dozens of my dog looking cute, loads of my son and a handful of my husband (one from behind, and to be honest he was slightly blocking out the view I was trying to capture much to my annoyance). I have been fascinated by fungi since going mushrooming before breakfast on a childhood caravan holiday – I remember vividly the multiple electric shocks I received from sliding under the farmer’s fence and of dodging cowpats so that I could find the biggest field mushrooms in the well fertilised meadow. We had an identification guide at home and I loved the graphic key that went with it. (See photo) Anything that warrants such a scary looking symbol to describe its qualities has to be worth studying in more detail!

That skull was so scary yet fascinating to me as a child – the sort of picture you deliberately look at just to frighten yourself!

Mycology is still one of the lesser studied branches of biology and the fungi kingdom is diverse and ancient. Mushrooms were seen as creations of the devil until relatively recently and they can appear quite boring on the surface. But underground, they have an enormous and complex life – in fact they have more in common with animals than plants in some ways and are totally, totally fascinating. Folklore, mythology and  medicine are full of tales of fungi and their ability to heal, kill or perform magic. The biggest organism in the world is a type of honey fungus; Armilllaria. The jury is out on whether it is a single organism or a colony but either way, it is huge, measuring 2,200 acres and is thought to be around 2500 years old.

…its form reminiscent of love, and its odor, of death. Thomas Mann: The Magic Mountain

The species I well and truly disappeared off down a hole over back in the summer was the Common Stinkhorn. Its latin name is Phallus Impudicus  which means, and there’s no discreet way of saying this; it absolutely, definitely, unequivocally and shamelessly looks like a penis. I find this quite interesting, because in fact mushrooms – as we usually refer to the fruiting body that has a stem and a cap – are the sexual reproductive organs of the fungal organism. They can go from non-existent to fully formed in the space of a few hours and disappear almost as quickly.

It wasn’t the look of the stinkhorn that drew my attention initially, but the smell. If you have ever smelt one you’ll know it is unforgettable. They are absolutely disgusting when you first get a whiff and I recognised the smell as decomposing badger. And yes, I was that specific. I grew up visiting the Quantock Hills regularly and that’s deer country so you’d often come across a deer carcass and these have that similar death smell but it’s not quite the same as dead badger. I didn’t want to breathe it in too deeply and hunted around to find the source of the pungent aroma. Low and behold I discovered a fine example of a Common Stinkhorn ( the one in the photo above). I didn’t mind having a good sniff then, it was still repulsive but also fascinating.

Stinkhorns disperse their reproductive spores in a different way to many other species. The gleba – the sticky green substance covering the cap – is full of spores and odorous chemicals including hydrogen sulphide which has a familiar rotten egg smell and dimethyl trisulphidide which has been found to be emitted from cancerous wounds. This is extremely attractive to blow flies and they land and feed on the gleba, which also has strong laxative properties that causes the flies to pass dense concentrations of spores in their faeces in the surrounding area. Interestingly, the type of blow fly that is particularly attracted to stinkhorns (species Calliphora vicina, Lucilia caesar, Lucilia ampullacea) are the same ones that feed on badger cadavers and have an essential role in reducing disease around badger setts. Cub mortality is high and if carcasses were left around, the risk of disease would be higher.

Sleeman, D.P.; Cronin, J.N; Jones, P. (1995). “Initial observations on stinkhorn fungi at badger setts”. Irish Naturalists’ Journal. 26: 76–77. found that there is also a possible ecological association between the Common stinkhorn and badger (Meles meles) setts. Fruiting bodies are commonly clustered in a zone 24 to 39 metres from the entrances (which, incidentally, tells you how far a blow fly can fly before it has diarrhoea). This really got me thinking and whenever I have been out for a walk and smelt a stinkhorn this past summer and autumn; I looked for badger setts. I have been observing whether stinkhorns are likely to indicate all badger setts or just the active ones. There aren’t any stinkhorns around yet this year but I’ve photographed a few locations and plan to go back in the summer and look for signs of badgers.

An illustration from The Runaway by Gwen Raverat

Charles Darwins’s granddaughter; Gwen Raverat was also fascinated by stinkhorns. She was an outstanding artist, wood engraver and a great friend of Virginia Woolf and well worth discovering if you’re not familiar with her. Gwen’s description in her writing about her childhood in Victorian Britain draws up some great comic imagery. This is what she had to say:

“In our native woods there grows a kind of toadstool, called in the vernacular The Stinkhorn, though in Latin it bears a grosser name. The name is justified, for the fungus can be hunted by the scent alone; and this was Aunt Etty’s great invention. Armed with a basket and a pointed stick, and wearing special hunting cloak and gloves, she would sniff her way round the wood, pausing here and there, her nostrils twitching, when she caught a whiff of her prey; then at last, with a deadly pounce, she would fall upon her victim, and poke his putrid carcass into her basket. At the end of the day’s sport, the catch was brought back and burnt in the deepest secrecy on the drawing-room fire, with the door locked; because of the morals of the maids.”

My new favourite fungi book

Stinkhorn’s may have a use in medicine as a form of supportive preventative nutrition. They contain extracts that reduce the incidence of platelet aggregation that occurs in venous thrombosis. They are edible and can be eaten raw. I’ve not tried one myself but I’m told they are crunchy and taste of radishes. The fungus is enjoyed and eaten in France and parts of Germany, where it may be sold fresh or pickled and used in sausages. Similar species are consumed in China.  Unsurprisingly, they are thought to be an aphrodisiac and have been used by various cultures to improve sexual performance, ranging from the 18th century English vicar who powdered them and drank them mixed with spirits to the peasants of South East Europe who rubbed them on bulls’ necks before bull fighting tournaments.

And that’s why I love fungi. They mix together science, fantasy and history and tell us how our forbearers viewed the world and what was important to them in terms of morals and beliefs. I do take a fair bit of flack from  my family who have  been  known to question whether I’d like them more if they were toadstools (I will not do any puns about them being fun guys I promise) and my husband has adopted a ruse to get me into Tesco’s by telling me they sell lots of different mushrooms – it didn’t work, I still hate shopping! So look out for these transient reproductive organs that appear briefly in our woods, fields and gardens and remember they have a much larger life going on out of sight – both underground and in peoples’ imaginations.