I have a strange relationship with fungi. Well, actually it’s not that strange, I’m terrified of it. I wasn’t always; it mainly came after talking to some scientists at a Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition.
They had been searching for ways to deal with the very serious problem of dry rot and had infected a dolls house with the spores to demonstrate the way Serpula lachrymans just takes over.
I was fine with it at the time, but afterwards I started thinking about the project – and that dolls house – and frankly began to get a bit creeped out. After a while I became really quite mycophobic. Fungus is just so…strange. And let’s face it, some of them can kill you, and you often don’t know which.
So when I was asked by the folks at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew to write a fungal follow-up to The Witch’s Garden (published a couple of years ago, and all about the folklore of plants), this time discussing the lore of mushrooms, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t keen.
Now it’s done, though, I’m rather pleased I screwed up my courage. I’ve just been given my author copy and have been flicking through it this morning. I have to say I’m rather pleased with it. The design team have done wonders, not least Kate Baxendale, who created this fabulously poisonous cover:
The one thing I haven’t tried to do is any kind of scientific description of mushrooms. If you want to know how fungi work or are looking for a field guide, I’m not your woman. That’s not really the point of this book, though I do include little general introductions to different kinds of fungi when it’s needed for clarification.
The book’s divided into different sections about various kinds of folklore, customs, superstitions and uses of fungi in popular culture…
…followed by specific aspects, such as witches and mushrooms:
Sometimes I delve into the way fungi’s been used in literature:
or, wearing my gardening hat, look at fungi in the garden, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ (though few of these peculiar life forms is as clear-cut as ‘good’ or ‘bad’…)
I am glad I was persuaded to write about fungi. Learning about this extraordinary kingdom has been a transformative experience and rooting out folklore from around the world, while not as easy as I first imagined, has given me a newfound fascination for the unknown. Don’t get me wrong, though. It’s still WEEEEIRD.
The Magic of Mushrooms is published by Welbeck/The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.