1st December 2020
This month’s blog, in partnership with Dave Winnard from Discover the Wild, discusses what to look for during December, including Fly Agaric, Jelly Ear and Scarlet Elf Cup.
To some, it could seem that December is a quiet time for foraging, and indeed for looking at many aspects of the natural world. The winter thrushes have arrived, and on some days, it seems it is only the birds that are brave enough to still be out at this time of year.
Actually, there is plenty out there, it can just be a little more hidden away. So this month I have three species for you to look for, all fungal, and all for me with a connection for Christmas, literally in some cases.
This month we are not discussing all edible species, but one edible, one inedible and one poisonous species.
As always though, only ever pick and eat something from the wild when YOU are 100% sure you know what you are doing and always identify your finds using a good field guide.
Usually, when I write about a species for people to learn to identify, I try and include as much detail on its appearance so you do not confuse it with something else. Well surely there is no more iconic mushroom species than the Fly Agaric, the fairy tale mushroom you see as decorations on Christmas trees.
Firstly, the Amanita family of mushrooms contains some of the most deadly species we know, and the Fly Agaric is poisonous too, so do not consume them. They are also hallucinogenic and it is this property where we get some of our Christmas traditions from. A red cap, ring on the stem, bulbous base and white spots all point to one species. Though be aware that the spots can come off in heavy rain, and sometimes the colour fades from red to orangey-yellow too, so when at their best, unmistakable, but be aware of specimens suffering which can confuse you.
This species grows commonly in Lapland (as well as in the North-west too!) with Birch (Betula) and in the Autumn the vast herds of reindeer have been known to eat them and then start jumping over things which are not there as the reindeer begin to see things. The Saami people looking after the reindeer would then drink the reindeer’s urine as it has had many toxins filtered out through the animal, but you still get the hallucinating effect. So then you have the Saami people hallucinating watching reindeer who are hallucinating which are jumping over things which are not there.
That is how you get flying reindeer. From Lapland. Who else do you know from Lapland?
Even the idea of Father Christmas (remind me what colour he wears again?) is based on the Saami tradition of celebrating mid-winter. An elder of an area would come round to the yurts and hand out dried Fly Agaric mushroom, performing a ceremony and then leaving through the yurts smoke hole. Hmm, using a chimney and handing out ‘goodies’, in Lapland, with reindeer, this is starting to sound very familiar.
I could go on, but this is only meant to be a short blog so you get the idea. Christmas as we know it today is because of this mushroom. All the ornaments, cards and decorations that have this mushroom on it, yet it should not be found in December as the frosts see it off. The mythology of this one mushroom species goes on and on and on. It should not be found in December usually, however Autumn has been so mild I am expecting to see one or two in the next week or so in the right habitat. An actual Christmas Fly Agaric will be a wonderful thing indeed.
What a weird fungus this is. It is always a species that, when I ask on my walks if anyone has ever eaten this weird fungus, barely anyone thinks they have but actually most will have done. It is often used in cooking from the Far East and if you have had something like hot and sour soup then you will have eaten this. I also have a recipe for Christmas that I make using my newest batch of sloe gin, read on and I will explain.
Commercially often called Wood Ear or Black Fungus, it is a weird, gelatinous ear-shaped fungi that in the wild loves our Elder (Sambucus nigra) trees. In fact, if you can find Elder then there is a good chance you will find Jelly Ear and it can be found all year round. When seen at their best, there are very few species you could confuse this with, especially if you only pick them growing on Elder (they can grow on other wood but Elder is their favourite). If they have any green growth on top though leave them as that means they are a bit past it.
Jelly Ear does this amazing job of hiding – well, it dries out and shrivels up to nothing, so in dry periods it can be very hard to spot on the tree. As soon as it rains though it rehydrates and seemingly appears overnight. To many they have no appeal for eating, although they have a nice simple, fungal flavour. If you just fry them they are a bit like tripe, so I understand why people are not that keen, however try my recipe below which may change your mind on them:
Chocolate coated, sloe gin infused, fungal wine gums! It’s perhaps my most favourite way to use these weird fungi and a great idea for Christmas.
A species which I often find on my walks around Christmas but can be found growing into early Spring too. I can remember my Grandma telling me that this beautiful species is what the Elves would use to drink from after they had finished building all the toys for Father Christmas, to have a little celebration for finishing, and now it was time for merriment for them.
Now allow me to be fussy, we use the term Scarlet Elf Cup, but in reality that covers two species; Scarlet Elf Cup (Sarcoscypha austriaca) and the Ruby Elf Cup (Sarcoscypha coccinea). In the field at the moment, there is no way to determine which species is which (although from my experience Scarlet Elf Cup is the commoner). You would need to look at them under a microscope to be sure which is which. They both grow in the same habitat though, mossy covered twigs and branches, and it can be easy to spot their bright red cups against green which is striking. Log piles and woodland floor where there are branches around are worth checking.
In recent years, there is a trend for people to forage them and use them as the little plates for other things (almost like a vol-au-vent). Whilst that may look really stunning and pretty in most cases, this species is referred to as inedible and one bit of research I was reading earlier this year suggested it probably should not be ingested. I know some foragers that have eaten them for years though so I would say we need to know more about them and they have been used for treating wounds in certain parts of the world, although externally. I have to say, having eaten one when I was younger, it is not a species I think has any real flavour anyway.
For me, this little vessel of scarlet just brightens up my winter walks. It seems to be getting commoner too so see if you can find some.
From me just a quick note to say I hope you all have a great time of year, however you spend it. If you can, then enjoy looking for these species. Rest whilst you can, signs of spring are fast emerging and next month we have some plants to look at :)