Forage and Feast blog - October

The wet weather recently has finally brought out a good number of fungi species, whilst some species are definitely have a ‘late’ season thanks to the prolonged warm dry weather we had well in to September, some species are making some of our woodlands feel like magical places with lots of mushrooms to find.

I thought this month I would try and theme the species I want you to look for around Halloween, I have tried to do this, but you make think some of the links are a bit tenuous. I have a species which is sacred, often found in churchyards but can be very poisonous, another species which is a killer of insects and a ‘pumpkin’ coloured edible mushroom (I know I’m stretching the link with halloween here).

Whatever you get up to over the following weeks, if you can make time to go for a walk in your local green space then these species are all worth looking for and introducing yourself to them, but remember, if you are foraging, only ever pick something YOU know 100% you know what it is.

Scarlet Caterpillar Club (Cordyceps militaris)

The cordycep family of fungi are notorious, they are famous for parasitising other species, including other fungi and insects. The Scarlet Caterpillar Club is our commonest species here in the U.K, and the name does it exactly what it says on the tin, its a caterpillar killer.

Scarlet Caterpillar Club is often found in grassland areas (though we do find them in a range of habitat) and the spores of this species will be laying around on the moss and grass. Then an unexacting caterpillar, usually a moth species, will unknowingly ingest the microscopic fungal spores. Then the fungus waits. The caterpillar carries on eating, getting fatter and fatter until the point it now wants to change into its adult form, so makes itself a cocoon and buries itself underground.

Now the fungus kicks in to gear, it starts to kill and feed off the caterpillar whilst it is in the cocoon, the caterpillar now never going to make it to its final adult form. But the fungus needs to spread it spores ready to move to another host, so the fungus produces a fruiting body from the cocoon which emerges from the soil, an orangey club shaped fungus, the spores able to drift off in the wind where they hope to be devoured by another caterpillar in the future.

If it was not for these orange coloured clubs sticking out of the ground like a flag pole then we would never know the fate of these caterpillars, so at this time of year in grassland keep an eye out for these weird fungi, and if you follow the fruiting body down through the soil you may find the cocoon of the host.

Yew (Taxus baccata)

A sacred tree throughout thousands of years of our history, the Druids are noted as finding this species special, regarding it with both life and death. No doubt the trees ability to drop limbs and root itself and begin again not being lost on them, something that the Christian faith also came to link with the resurrection of Christ.

This sacred tree which is often found in churchyards is one of my favourite tree species. They can be ancient, and I mean ancient, there is a Yew tree thought to be around 4000 years old in a cemetery in the Conwy Valley (The Llangernyw Yew), regenerating itself even though the original central trunk died out a long time ago. We often think about Yew trees being planted in Churchyards but actually many churches were probably established on older sacred ground where the Yew trees already were (in some not all cases).

At this time of year the trees are often covered in the small beautiful pinkish berries. The outer flesh is the only part of the tree that is not very poisonous, the needles, bark and seeds are very poisonous (to us, some birds eat them no problem). So this is a very much a species not to consume, but just to take a moment and be in awe at its beauty, the evergreen needles providing colour through winter.

Saffron Milkcap (Lactarius deliciosus)

I know what you are thinking, how does this relate to halloween? Well I am going with its a bit pumpkin coloured, but we need to include this one as its one of my favourites at this time of year, I mean even its scientific name is ‘delicious’ that’s how tasty this species.

The Saffron Milkcap, like all over Milkcaps, produces ‘milk’ from the gills or the cap when it has been damaged. The Saffron Milkcap, however, does not produced white ‘milk’ but instead a rich orange colour liquid.

A common species in the presence of Pine trees, it is a little variable in colour, drier specimens are often a paler orange, but slightly wetter specimens can be a richer colour. The stem often has little  rounded ‘pits’ which help to tell this species apart and can be green as well. Young little specimens can be green as well as older more damaged species can ‘bruise’ a green colour.

The key here is that it is with Pine, there are other similar species that grow with other coniferous tress, the False Saffron Milkcap, lacking the pits on the stem, grows with spruce, this species is also edible. Another rarer species, Lactarius salmonicolor, grows with Fir trees and is not edible and there is also another rare species which can grow with Pine, Lactarius quieticolor, but this is a greyish-pink colour on the cap, not orange like the Saffron Milkcap.

Anywhere at this time of the year that has Pine trees is a likely place to encounter the Saffron Milkcap, it can be very common and numerous is many areas, and can be a dominant species in pine plantations. The can be dried or cooked however you like your mushrooms cooked.

So there we have it folks, three species to seek out over the coming weeks, enjoy them. As always if you are thinking of foraging then only ever pick and eat something from the wild that YOU are 100% you know what it is.