Very Top Five... Freaky Funguses

Tuesday, 1 September 2009
Fungi are fun, hence the name. Anyway, it's time for a run through of the five most freaky funguses.

Some are edible, some are deadly; some are tiny microscopic blips, while the biggest is the largest living organism on the Earth, at 6 million kilograms. Freaky, no?

Among their accolades, funguses have been historically associated with witchcraft, and people have even been burned at the stake for having the wrong sort of mushrooms in their garden. For example...

5. Phallus Impudicus, Stinkhorn:

Back in medieval Europe, this fungus was called Satan’s egg.

It starts life as a small egg-like orb and has a slight smell, but is fairy harmless by fungal standards. It is even edible. So calling it Satan’s egg seems a bit harsh.

But wait ‘til you see what it does next! In the middle of the night, the ‘egg’ will split, and a fungal protuberance grows out of it at about 10cm per hour. This is so fast that you can actually watch it grow, and it makes a slight popping sound. Like Rice Krispies when you add the milk.

So by the morning, the forest has a brand new mushroom. A humorously cock shaped one, as it turns out. It is very slimy, and really stinks like dead flesh. Flies arrive in droves to eat all the slime, and the fungus looks rather as if it deserves the name “Satan’s Egg.” Or Stinkhorn, as it is called these days.

Obviously, if you had any stinkhorns growing near your cottage then you were a witch, and burned accordingly.

By the way, when I said it really stinks of dead flesh I wasn’t exaggerating. Ten years ago, the residents of a small village in Sussex reported a strong smell of rotting meat. It got worse and worse, and eventually police trawled the nearby forest to search for a body. Turns out it was hundreds of Stinkhorns. Satan strikes again. (I assume all of the villagers were all burned, just to be on the safe side.)

4. Coprinopsis atramentaria, Common Inkcap:

This little fungus is edible, and quite nice tasting by all accounts, and agrees with your digestive system perfectly. However, it contains a chemical called coprine. Coprine is not a fan of the enzyme acetaldehyde dehydrogenase, and so blocks it, and in the right circumstances the results can be quite entertaining.

In North America, this fungus goes by the name of Tippler’s Bane. Because when you drink alcohol with blocked acetaldehyde dehydrogenase, you will soon find out what it is like to be unable to process ethanol. (Hint: It is quite vomity) Even if you drink a teensy bit of alcohol three days after ingestion of the mushrooms, you will still find yourself being extravagantly sick.

So teetotalers can enjoy mouthfuls of inkcap risk-free, whereas drinkers should beware. Also, besides the sickness, you might get testicular lesions. LOL.

3. Claviceps purpurea, Ergot:

Back in the day, there was an irritating fungus that grew on rye. It was called ergot, and made the rye all stunted and rubbish. The flour made from this rye was brown and gritty and foul-smelling, and nobody wanted to buy it.

But clearly, the peasants were hardly spoiled for choice; ergot-infested flour got made into bread, and the hardy townsfolk ate it, as they were wont to do.

And consequently got a disease called St. Anthony’s fire, or ergotism.

There are two types: gangrenous ergotism, where you lose blood flow to your extremities (with hilarious results), and convulsive ergotism, where you feel like ants are under your skin, you see hallucinogenic visions, and shake “as if in the grippe of ane epilyptic fevyr.”

Quite often this would be identified as a sign of witchcraft, and consequently followed up with the eminently sensible precaution of burning.

But the story of ergot continued into the 20th century. In 1943, Chemist Albert Hoffman was fiddling about in the lab with some ergot and some acids, and got some of the chemicals on his fingers. In accordance with the stringent safety precautions of the time, he licked it off.

On his bike ride home, everything started to get very real for Dr Hoffman. Having to swerve to avoid all of the pink elephants was particularly frustrating. It turned out that he had discovered lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD, synthesised from the lysergic acids present in ergot. (When he got home he believed himself to be possessed by demons and that his next door neighbour was a witch, by the way. Fortunately, no inquisitors got wind of this, so there was no burning that day.)

Hoffman then went on to discover the effects of magic mushrooms, in case you don’t find LSD fun enough. He died last year on April the 29th aged 102. Not bad.

2. Amanita phalloides, Death Cap

To be honest, Death cap isn’t as funny as it is deadly.

The first unfair thing about Death cap mushrooms is that they look just like straw mushrooms, which are edible. And, because the main differences are hidden at the root, and the mushrooms are cut off at the base on collection, you often don’t know what you’ve picked ‘til you eat it.

Then you bite into it, notice the taste, and think “gosh, these straw mushrooms are unusually delicious!” since Death caps are indeed pleasant tasting. Afterwards, appetite sated, everything seems totally fine for a day or so. Then boom! turns out your stomach has been getting death-raped all that time.

Cue sudden diarrhoea, vomiting, horrific stomach pains and a fervent wish that you hadn’t ordered straw mushrooms.

If you don’t get to hospital you will die of dehydration. Of course, most people do make it to hospital these days, where it takes days to stabilise them (There is no antidote, but dehydration is countered with activated charcoal in the stomach and a glucose drip).

But most people survive and are discharged from hospital. Several days pass, and hurrah! you will make a gradual but full recovery. Seemingly.

Except you don’t because, as it turns out, Deathcap gets the last laugh (The clue is in the name). About a week after you ate the fungus, you will suddenly suffer massive kidney and liver failure and die in agony in about half an hour. Around 90% of people who eat Deathcap will die. (In fairness to modern medicine, if you get a liver transplant then you’ll probably live.)

Death cap belongs to the Amanita family. This also includes Panther cap and Destroying angel which, like Death Cap, are just as mercilessly deadly as they sound and together account for 95% of mushroom related deaths.

1. Cordyceps unilateralis

The first thing you notice about an ant with cordyceps unilateralis growing on it is that it has totally rad orange antennae mods. These are blobs of the fungus Cordyceps unilateralis. This has no common name, but if it did it would have to be something like Brain Fungus.

The Ant is probably thinking “Sweet! These bad boys make me look haut! Check me, I is the shiz,” and who can blame him.

But eventually the fungus will grow into the ant’s brain, and chemically tell it to do things. Things like, “you should totally climb onto a branch.” So the ant does, and the fungus goes “And get a firm grip with those big mandibles,” so the ant does, then the fungus eats the Ant’s brain. And is all like; “Unlucky, you’ve been brain fungused,” and continues to eat the ant then spread onto the branch. Harsh but true.

Of course this fungus infects ants, not people, but if anyone was observing the unusual behaviour of the ant they might reasonably conclude that the malign influence was due to witchcraft. This situation could be successfully mediated by burning the ant.


Amandasaurus said...

Just in case I DIDN'T already think mushrooms were foul... now I'm sure of it. No mushrooms for me, magic or otherwise.