Autumn treasure 14: Shaggy Ink Caps

20/10/20 Two weeks ago I arrived home from a walking holiday in Cornwall and Devon to find the landscape transformed: I had left in warm late summer, and I was arriving back in the midst of autumn. The air was cool, the ground was wet, the trees were turning and leaves lay on the ground. One of the first things I needed to do in order to ground myself in this new season and my home landscape was to go for a walk. My hoped-for walk on arrival was swept aside by an emergency vet trip, as were most of my positive feelings about arriving home. But in the short period before panic and anxiety set in, I had already felt the relief and joy of arriving back to a place in which I was glad to live. In my desperation to get away in the preceding months, it was easy to forget that. The desperation had nothing to do with attachment to my home and local landscape; it was about getting away from chores and having a mental rest, which I was finding difficult to achieve without altering my surroundings.

shaggy ink capMy walk was delayed until the next day. I went to The Hobbets, where I spotted hiding in the long grass beside the path a single large shaggy ink cap. One of my favourite mushrooms. No: my favourite mushroom. I greeted it enthusiastically, without checking first there was no one in earshot – I have got used to people happening upon me mid-conversation with some animal, plant or tree. I looked around for others, but found none. I hoped more would appear in the next few days.

On my way home, I started to wonder why I love shaggy ink caps so much. Was it because they were one of the few mushrooms I could identify without any doubt? No, it wasn’t that: I could identify shaggy parasols, giant puffballs, common ink caps, honey fungus and fly agarics. Not a huge selection, but better than nothing. It was definitely to do with their appearance, I decided, and perhaps their name. I love the word shaggy, as well as what it signifies. They are shaggy, of course, and also beautifully white, unmistakably themselves in their distinctive shape even when they are only just starting to poke through the grass. They are a friendly autumnal sight; there is not the slightest hint of malice about them.

They may be without malice, but they are not without mystery: they belong in Alice in Wonderland or a fairy tale. I have read a story about a shaggy ink cap lifting a paving slab 4 centimetres in 48 hours as it grew out of the ground1. It costs me some effort to believe it. Barely have they grown to full size than they rapidly dissolve from the bottom up into a pool of black ink, so if you pick one to eat, you’d better be quick – and don’t leave it lying on anything that will stain.

I have only picked them once, however, even though they are one of very few mushrooms that I am 100% confident of eating. I don’t remember their taste: I imagine, from their appearance, it is simply a mild, creamy mushroom flavour. I don’t like picking shaggy ink caps because they’re too pretty. And because, even though I know mushrooms are more like fruits than flowers, I feel the same way about picking them as I do about picking wildflowers. If I came across a whole colony of them, I could, no doubt, bring myself to pick a few, although I would still feel a wrench in doing so. But I hardly ever find more than two or three, all at different stages of growth, preventing a worthwhile harvest even without moral, sentimental or aesthetic hesitations. The only fairy forests of shaggy ink caps I have encountered have been on people’s front lawns, which puts them out of bounds. In any case this has happened only twice: once in Hitcham a few years ago, and once the other day in Felsham village about 4 miles from my house. I was too slow going back to take a photograph, and most of the stalks that remained were capless (see header photo).

Picking them seems to me almost a betrayal of friendship. So I don’t do it, even if someone else with no such qualms might come along after me.

One day, perhaps, I will finally get round to booking myself on a mushroom identification course, as I have been intending to do for at least the last five years. Not for foraging purposes, but simply because I want to know what fungi live around me: I have many times tried to identify specimens using the best book available, overwhelmingly without success. You have to be an expert to eliminate the risk of picking mushrooms to eat, and I think it is a case of partial knowledge being more dangerous than total ignorance.

But this is by the by: I am sure that no amount of expertise would make any difference to my feelings about shaggy ink caps. They will always remain my favourite mushroom. I will continue on the lookout in autumn, and treasure the rare occasions when I come across a forest of them. I am happy to wait patiently for as long as it takes to experience once again the pleasure of eating a few, because the simple sight of them is joy enough, without ambivalence.

Header photo: shaggy ink caps in Felsham village