Friday, 16 June 2017

How to Identify Amanitas

The Amanita Family

The Amanita Family is certainly one of the most interesting for foragers, and definitely one that any novice forager should quickly familiarise themselves with.

The Amanita family contains roughly 24 species in Britain and some are among the most deadly poisonous mushrooms in the world.

Of the 24 at least 6 are listed as deadly among the books I own. Those are The Death Cap, The Destroying Angel, The Gemmed Amanita, The Panther Cap, The Spring Amanita and The Fools Mushroom. Not all of those are pictured here.

Some Amanitas are edible but not mushrooms we consider safe for the novice forager. The most important thing for any novice forager to learn is how to recognise the Amanitas and what edibles they can look like.

Before even considering eating any of the edible members of this family, or picking any mushroom that can look similar to them, it is worth noting that there is no known cure for the combination of toxins found in some Amanitas. 

A slow death is likely if you ingest these mushrooms, accompanied by terrible pain and extreme gastric problems as they destroy your internal organs.

Identifying all the Amanitas can be tricky but there are some key characteristics most share that you should look out for.

How to Identify the Amanitas.

1. All have white gills and white spores. 

2, All normally have a bulbous base, so when identifying mushrooms you don't know; it is important to get to the very base of the stem or stipe to see what's there. This can often be buried under the forest detritus or even the mud itself.

3, Many grow from an egg sack like structure called a volva. The volva can closely resemble other young mushrooms such as puffballs or stinkhorn eggs or even young Agarics (field mushroom types), so this should be taken into consideration when harvesting any of those edible mushrooms.

4, The remains of the volva can often be seen on the top of the cap of the mushroom, particularly the death cap, which often has the white remains of the volva left.

5, Most have a skirt, and the skirts can either be smooth or striated. Look closely at the skirt characteristics when you start to try to identify the individual species within the family. 

The Grisettes; a subspecies of the Amanitas generally do not have skirts.  Be aware that the skirt on a mushroom can sometimes come off due to weathering or by being brushed or blown off.

6. Many have speckles or spots on the top as with the archetypal gnome seat, The Fly Agaric or Amanita muscaria pictured on the right. This is a very interesting mushroom, and though it is used recreationally it falls into the deadly mushroom category as it has been known to cause deaths. 

Each Fly Agaric mushroom has an unknown quantity of the poison muscarine in it which can have fatal effects.

Different members of the family have slightly different types of speckles, some are scales left from when the mushroom broke through its egg, some seem to be flaky and some are much more like a calcite build up on top of the cap. 

All of these different types of 'speckles' can be washed off by the rain, and some of the most deadly members of the family often have no speckles at all.

Mushrooms that can be confused with Amanitas

Puffballs; small white puffballs can resemble Amanita eggs, always cut your puffballs in half and make sure there isn't a little mushroom inside to be sure you don't have an Amanita.

Young Field Mushrooms or other Agarics; If you pick a young Agaric before the cap has opened then you are running the risk of it being an Amanita. Check the colour of the gills, as with the Amanitas they will always be white and with young Agarics, they will always be off-white to pink.

Russulas; The Gemmed Amanita on the right can look like the common yellow Russula if all of the speckles have been washed off the top. Check the shape and texture of the stem. The Russula stem will be straight and white like a stick of chalk and have no skirt. The Amanita stem will be bulbous at the base and probably have a skirt.

Parasols; there are a number of superficial similarities between the Parasol and the Amanita family. Check the cap of your Parasol to make sure it is actually scaly rather than having scales you can brush off.

Edible Amanitas; the most likely mistake to make is when picking other edible members of the Amanita family, so if you are going to try experimenting with edible Amanitas extreme caution is required. Never eat any mushroom from this family unless you are 100% sure of what it is and that it is edible. Never eat any members of this family raw.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

How to make a wood whistle

Take my word for it, carving a whistle from elder is an empowering activity, one that traces the handiwork of our ancestors and resounds in you long after the note has disappeared into the autumn air. And it’s dead simple. All you need is a penknife and a pair of eyes.

Elder is extremely common and easy to identify. Look around roadside verges, parks, woods, wastelands and railway lines for a bush-like, shrubby tree. It has oval-shaped, serrated leaves that grow in opposite pairs and a cracked, corky bark that's grey-brown in colour. The telltale squishy removable pith, which makes it such an ideal whistle making material, runs through its core.

Use a straight branch a bit thicker than your index finger and around ten centimetres long. At this width the pith inside should be at its widest, taking up most of the cross-section. The ratio is important; the tube needs to be hollow enough to create a decent whistle, but not so thin that it splits during its creation. Ideally, the wood will be two or three millimetres thick.

With a penknife, shave away the outer bark and use a sharpened stick to push out the pith in the middle to leave a clear, wooden tube. Now cut the ‘voicing mouth’ two centimetres in from one end by slicing vertically down onto the tube at 90º and meeting this line with a 45º cut. Repeat until the hole resembles a smile that exposes the hollow tube within.

Next, find a round stick that is a touch wider than the end of the whistle and strip away the outer bark until it fits in the tube all the way up to edge of the voicing mouth. Then slice it a flat top with one or two decisive strokes and push it snugly into place. Cover the other end and blow. The flat surface allows the air to hit the voicing mouth cleanly, whereupon it splits to produce the whistle noise.

Regardless of where you source your elder, make a patch of woodland your workshop. Carving is one of the most therapeutic pastimes possible. It is psycho- and physiotherapy, pulling us out of our everyday worries and stresses with gentle focus. The level of concentration required also renders the work delightfully silent labour, leaving our ears open to the sounds of nature all around.

Part of the thrill of British woodland is the stark relief it gives us from our everyday existence, imparting a non-human otherness. Watching the industry of animals in autumn, even one so common as the grey squirrel or ground beetle reminds us of the mind-bogglingly varied contemporaries we share our planet with.

The elder tree has long been thought to be the favourite dwelling place of other, more mystical creatures. Faeries were once said to love the music from flutes made of this wood above all others. After some adjustments, the whistle should work wonderfully, sending sylvan notes through the trees. An elder whistle produces an organic, woody note, closer to that of a birdcall than anything else. Far from scaring away the wildlife, it is as if you’ve found the language of the forest itself.

Making and playing a whistle allows us to bottle something of the joy of the wood even when you return home. For a moment at least, when you take the whistle from a shelf and blow it, the walls and furniture of the room fade away you are back in the trees.