Ellen Percival, botanist, mycologist, medicine maker, psychedelic welfare worker and DJ, unexpectedly passed away on 6 May 2022. We share their 'Guide to Seasonal Fungi' from the Ignota Diary here.
Scarlet Elf Cup – Sarcoscypha austriaca and Sarcoscypha coccinea
These bright red cup fungi emerge from decomposing sticks in early spring, their colour popping out from their surroundings. It was long thought that in the UK they were just the one species (S. coccinea) but in recent decades it’s been found that there are in fact two species, S. coccinea and S. austriaca. Adding to the intrigue, it seems that S. austriaca is in fact the most common of the two, by quite a long way, and that S. coccinea is likely to be pretty rare. The two species can’t be told apart with the naked eye, which illustrates some of the mystery of fungi as a whole: many species look outwardly identical, and can only be identified through light microscopy, chemical staining or genetic testing. These are sometimes known as cryptic species, due to being hidden ‘secretly’ in plain sight. With fungi there is always more going on under the surface than you might think, and surrendering to not knowing can be an important first step.
If you come across a scarlet elf cup you can attempt a rough-and-ready field identification using a hand lens (available cheaply on the Internet) or a magnifying glass. S. coccinea sometimes has very finely hairy or toothed cup margins, while S. austriaca tends to have a blunter, slightly thicker margin. The true test is to have a look under a microscope: the outside of the cup is home to tiny microscopic hairs, which are straight to wavy in S. coccinea, and very curly in S. austriaca. If you find some scarlet elf cups it doesn’t matter if you have a microscope or not, you can still help other mycologists by making a biological record using an app like iRecord. This helps to increase knowledge of where these species are found, and sign-posts the way for future enthusiasts and enquirers. Just make sure to record the fungus as Sarcoscypha sp. instead of a particular species. You can also collect one or two cups and dry them out at home, making sure they don’t get too hot (over 40°C) or go mouldy, and take the specimens to a local fungus group, who will often be happy to help you investigate further. They’re also, technically, edible, but why eat them when there’s so much more to explore?
Coral Tooth Fungus – Hericium corralloides
This beautiful and eye-catching fungus can be found from late summer, fruiting from decomposing trunks and branches, particularly of beech, birch and ash trees. As well as being appealing to the eye, it is very rare, and will be a source of great excitement to mycologists if you locate one. Just be careful to keep the location secret and share only with trusted parties, as members of the Hericium genus are some of the few fungi to be legally protected in the UK and are simultaneously highly prized for their gourmet and medicinal properties, thus some people are keen to hunt them down and consume them. But, do not despair, an increasing number are grown commercially, and this is the most fungus-friendly way to sample them, rather than collecting them from the wild. Hericium erinaceus, aka Lion’s Mane, is the most famous member of the genus, and the species usually cultivated. For a long time it was thought that members of the Hericium genus were even less common than they’re thought to be today (which is still very rare), however genetic testing of living wood samples tells us that these species occur relatively frequently, passing their time unnoticed inside of trees, and it is their visible fruiting that is truly rare.
Liberty Cap – Psilocybe semilanceata
Named after their resemblance to Phrygian caps, which came to represent freedom and liberty in the French Revolution, this iconic species is highly sought after, and likely one of the most foraged. In the UK picking liberty caps is illegal, but quietly admiring them at a distance, of course, is not. I don’t encourage or condone illegal activity, but if you’re going to engage in it, it’s better to do so safely. The key is not to confuse P. semilanceata with other species that look alike, which may cause gastrointestinal distress if eaten. If in doubt it’s best to ask someone with a trusted and experienced eye, as these species can be tricky to distinguish without a bit of practice. This process is known amongst naturalists as “getting your eye in” or having a grasp on the “jizz” of a species (I kid you not).Members of the genus Mycena are often confused with this species, and if you’re in a dung-rich habitat Protostropharia semiglobata can add confusion to the mix. Looking these up in a field guide or online is a good place to start familiarising yourself with similar-looking species. Liberty caps can be seen from as early as mid-August to as late as January, depending on the year. Although they seem to have a preference for grazed, unfertilised grassland they can be found in a wide range of grassy habitats, including high-maintenance lawns and even dry ski slopes. Their spores are melanised, meaning they are protected by an outer coating of melanin, the same molecule responsible for human skin colour. This is thought to allow them to pass safely through the guts of grazing animals.
Wavy Cap – Psilocybe cyanescens
Another highly sought-after species, typically found later in the season than its smaller and more delicately-formed cousin, the liberty cap. Unlike liberty caps, which are only found in grassland, wavy caps are a wood-loving species, and are often found fruiting in clusters on ornamental chipped wood. (A 2004 study noted that they were significantly less keen on chipped bark.) Again, care should be taken when identifying these, and they are subject to the same legal constraints as liberty caps. Admiration from afar is all that is allowed. Species not to confuse them with include Leratiomyces ceres (the redlead roundhead) in particular, which often grows alongside P. cyanescens and is poisonous. Redlead roundheads have a distinctively red cap, the edges of which are not “wavy”. Nor do their stems bruise blue. Their spores, however, are roughly the same colour, and overall the species do broadly resemble each other. This is an instance where if you are in even the smallest bit of doubt about a discovery you should seek advice. Other commonly co-occurring species from the same woodchip habitat include Psathyrella microrhiza, Leratiomyces percevalii, Agrocybe putaminum and Gymnopus biformis.
Illustrations by Jungran Kim