Perils of a poison pie

Keen eye … Jack Simpson examines poison pie mushrooms at Red Hill. Photo: Jeffrey ChanJack Simpson, of Narrabundah, is deep in the world of fungi, and in May led a walk in Westbourne Woods, near Yarralumla, to search for just some of the 50,000 species of fungi that grow in Australia.
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May is normally the month for fungi, but the Friends of the ACT Trees group found only a few mushrooms, a result of the dry weather this year.

Entering the Royal Canberra Golf Club grounds, there were no pixie-parasol mushrooms, but we admired the saffron-yellow cups of Quercus chrysolepis, a rare evergreen spreading oak. We trampled in dry leaves and heard birds sing.

Simpson, a forest pathologist and mycologist, showed us tiny grey blobs of fungi growing on crab apple trees in Westbourne Woods. They’re used by highlanders in Papua New Guinea as chewing gum, although the species, Schizophyllum commune, can infect the lungs and toes of humans.

The day after our walk in the woods, it rained and, a fortnight later, like magic, up came the fungi. Simpson found a fairy ring under a cork oak in Red Hill, the ”poison pie” (Hebeloma crustuliniforme), which could be confused with Agaricus, the field mushroom.

He says there has been very little research into the poisonous properties of Australian mushrooms and false truffles. You should never eat unidentified fungi, and it’s wise also to keep an uncooked specimen of any fungi you do eat in the refrigerator for four days, so if you become ill, the fungus can be identified.

Few people work on fungi in Australia, and those who do usually focus on agricultural and horticultural crops. But the many species of fungi in Australia include edible mushrooms and the lichens that add character to old neglected fruit orchards.

Lichens do not cause damage to the trees but they will corrode roof tiles and gravestones. In 2012, the International Union for Conservation of Nature gave fungi the same conservation status as plants and animals, so mycologists around the world celebrated.

The largest fungi organism in the world is an Armillaria root-rotting fungus in Canada, the colony of which is about seven kilometres wide.

On the walk, we saw the native Armillaria novae-zeelandiae growing on an ash tree. Mycorrhizal fungi form on roots – among them edible fungi like truffles and slippery jacks. We were told slippery jacks (Suillus luteus) make excellent soup, if first sliced and dried.

The shortage of timber for making matches during World War II stimulated interest in local tree growing. Poplar plantations were established in the Northern Rivers in NSW, along the Murray River in Victoria and at Tumut.

Simpson says in the early 1970s, poplar rust was discovered in trees near Sydney, probably introduced on illegally imported poplar cuttings. Poplar rust (a fungi) wiped out the match-making industry of Bryant and May.

If, like me, you have a collection of safety matchboxes, check the origin of the matches. Some may be from Hanna Match Australia and made in Japan, or have matchwood stock from Finland.

My box of Redheads was made in Sweden for the Australian market, and I have an old box of campfire matches made in the former Soviet Union.

Susan Parsons is a Canberra writer.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.

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