Unless otherwise noted, information contained in each edition of the Kansas School Naturalist reflects the knowledge of the subject as of the original date of publication.
Volume 32, Number 4 -
The Fungi in Fact and Fable
by John E. Peterson
ABOUT THIS ISSUE
Published by EMPORIA STATE UNIVERSITY
Prepared and Issued by THE DEPARTMENT OF BIOLOGICAL SCIENCES
Editor: Robert F. Clarke
Editorial Committee: Tom Eddy, Gilbert A. Leisman, Gaylen Neufeld, John Parrish
Online edition by: Terri Weast
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The Kansas School Naturalist is published in October, December, February, and April of each year by Emporia State University, 1200 Commercial, Emporia, Kansas 66801-5087. Second-class postage paid at Emporia, Kansas.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. John E. Peterson is Professor of Biology at Emporia State University and for a number of years served as Dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Among other duties, he heads the Honors Program at E.S.U. Dr. Peterson has traveled widely in search of his study organisms of choice - the fungi. He is a world authority on some of the forms.
The Fungi in Fact and Fable
by John E. Peterson
Such common terms as "molds, mushrooms, toadstools, mildews, and yeasts" are often used when speaking of the fungi. These terms refer to only a few of the most obvious fungi or to some of those which are most pertinent to man's activities. They are quite satisfactory terms , however, and do get one's thinking going in the right direction as to the type of organisms with which we are dealing.
The one characteristic all fungi have in common is that they possess none of the green pigment, chlorophyll, found in the algae and the green plants. Consequently, they cannot manufacture their own food. Fungi must, therefore, secure their energy from some already established energy source. There are two broad categories whereby they do this. They may utilize dead plant and animal debris of all types. We often refer to the fungi as "the scavengers" or "garbage disposals" of nature because of this mode of existence. While they are decomposing plant and animal debris in order to get energy for their own sustenance, they are also performing a magnificent service in the natural cycling system.
The other nutritional source for fungi comes whey they parasitize living plant and animal cells and tissues. Some of this parasitization causes disease of the plant or animal being parasitized, of course. In other instances, the system is so highly evolved that no damage is done to the host and, in some cases, the fungus provides something for the host. It is, therefore, beneficial.
About 100,000 fungi have been described. It is estimated that there are another 100,000 or so which are not known. The fungi comprise a substantial group of organisms, therefore, even though they are unfamiliar to most people. For the sake of comparison, there are about 400,000 green plants known, but only about 1,500 species of bacteria.
Not only are the fungi a group of organisms of some size, but it is a group with considerable diversity. Fungi demonstrate considerable diversity of form and structure, of mode of obtaining energy, of the various chemical activities they can perform, of their reproductive and propag4tive mechanisms.
All of this, then, makes for a group of organisms of great beauty and aesthetic character, a group of considerable adaptive potential to various and changing environments, a group of great importance in the natural scheme of things. And a group of organisms of considerable importance to man and his activities. It is this latter area -the effect of fungi on man, his activities, his history -that will be the subject of the following paragraphs.
THE HORRIBLE MEDIEVAL DISEASE KNOWN AS "HOLY FIRE," THE BURNING OF WITCHES IN SALEM, MASSACHUSETTS, IN 1692, AND THE MODERN PSYCHODELIC DRUG, LSD, ALL HAVE COMMON DERIVATION IN THE SAME FUNGI. Fact or Fable?
The fungus with the not-attractive name of Claviceps purpurea attacks the flowers and developing kernels of various grasses. Rye and the "drum wheats" are particularly susceptible. Those flowers not attacked produce normal grain kernels, but those which are attacked by the fungus - perhaps some 20-25% of all those in a heavily infested field - become dark purple in color and three-to-four times the size of healthy grains. They are commonly called "ergots," however, and this is the name given to the disease seen in rye and other grasses when this happens.
The food staple of Medieval Europe was dark bread. It was made mostly from rye flour. In making the flour, some of the ergots would get in with the normal kernels. The millers carefully picked the ergots out of their best flour, that destined for aristocracy and the wealthy, but they did not worry about a few in their ordinary flour for the peasantry.
Outbreaks of a horrible disease known as "Holy Fire" - because, of course, it was blamed on God's wrath - were very common among the peasantry. It started with violent nausea, cramps, internal bleeding and pain. Mental abberations, often attributed to possession by the devil and similar causes, followed. Later, stages of the disease resulted in rotting of the toes and fingers and, in many cases, death.
This disease was not as prominent in England and , later, in America, because the staple of diet in those countries was white bread. The ergots would make the flour very dirty in appearance and, hence, were meticulously picked out. In addition, the varieties of wheat used were not nearly as susceptible to attack by the fungus. Today, we call the disease of humans and animals caused by this ingestion of these ergots "ergotism" and it is of consequence mostly in cattle.
Recent studies have suggested that the Salem witchcraft affair of 1692 here in America was precipitated by an outbreak of ergotism in the area. Rye was heavily grown and used for flour at that time. The actions, mental abberations, and convulsions of some of those accused of witchcraft sound very much like those described for Holy Fire in Europe. It is reasonable that this could have been the explanation.
We now know that these fungal "ergots" contain a wide spectrum of alkaloid chemical compounds. Some of them are so useful pharmaceutically that erotized grain is more valuable than healthy grain. In fact, efforts have been made to grow entire fields of infected grain. One of the alkaloids is useful in treating high blood pressure, others are powerful and anti-coagulants - remember that one of the symptoms of Holy Fire was internal bleeding - and, hence, useful in treating some heart conditions. Another causes uterine contractions and, therefore, is an abortificant.
And one of the chemicals present in ergots is lysergic acid. That is the LS part of LSD. The D stands for diethylamide. A chemical conversion so simple that it can be done in a high school chem lab turns lysergic acid into LSD.
There is very little fable in the original statement. A good bit of fable and superstition is connected with Holy Fire, the Salem Witchcraft hangings, and LSD, but there is none about their fungal commonality and derivation.
THE BRITISH ARE NOTORIOUS TEA, RATHER THAN COFFEE, DRINKERS BECAUSE OF RUST. Fact or Fable?
In the connotation used above, what is rust? One group of the fungi are highly specialized parasites on higher plants. They produce a brown-red pustule - a rusty color - on the stems and leaves of the plants they parasitize; hence, the common name "rust" for them. They are so highly specialized that they can only exist on one species of plant and, often, only on one variety of a given species. Most of the economically important plants of the world have one or more rusts parasitizing them, sometimes very badly.
Until about 1860, the island of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) off the cost of India, was one big, happy coffee plantation. As is usually the case with such extensive one-crop cultivation, a disease situation of epidemic proportions had built up. The rust attacking coffee became an ever increasing problem in the 1860s.
Early in the 1870s, the first British mycologist - Marshall Ward, who had just been trained in Germany - got his first job working on the coffee rust problem in Ceylon. Ward elucidated the problem and made his fame as a scientist in so doing, but it was too late to save the coffee. Coffee growing in Ceylon was finished.
All coffee production moved to South and Central America where it exists today. The British, you will recall, had no colonies there. Ceylon was planted to tea and the British began to drink teas -whether they liked it or not.
The initial statement is almost pure fact. Coffee rust was found for the first time in Brazil in 1970 and has been an increasing problem. We do know how to manage today better than we did in Marshall Ward's time, however, and we have more time in which to do it.
THOSE WHO SUFFERED "THE PHAROAH'S CURSE" AFTER ENTERING THE TOMB OF KING TUT WERE ACTUALLY SUFFERING FROM A MOLD ALLERGY. Fact or Fable?
The tomb of Egyptian Pharoah Tutankhamen was first entered in 1922. Other explorers, archeologists, and adventurers entered the tomb in following years. About two dozen of those who entered in the first two or three years after the tomb was opened died shortly after the experience. That led to the idea that those who did so , thus desecrating the tomb, were cursed.
King Tut died about 1,350 BC. Fruits, vegetables, and a variety of other such organic materials was placed in the tomb for the king's use in the afterworld and the tomb was sealed. Blue, green, and brown molds grew on those foods and materials in such profusion that there were patches of them even on the walls. These fungi did not survive the over 3,000 years in the closed tomb, but the dust into which they deteriorated did.
When the tomb was opened, those who entered breathed this 3,000 year old fungal dust. They died from severe allergic reactions. This is the opinion of a French physician who wrote her doctoral thesis describing the process. After the tomb had been open for a few years, the mold dust dissipated and those entering no longer became ill. The curse had been lifted.
The initial statement is probably fact. Caroline Stenger-Phillippe, the French physician, has shown that six of the deaths, at least, probably happened in the fashion described. Other allergists have agreed with her.
THOUGH ITS NATURE AS A FUNGUS AND AS AN INFECTIOUS AGENT WOULD NOT BE KNOWN FOR 2,000 YEARS, THE ROMANS HAD A GOD FOR WHEAT RUST. Fact or Fable?
The nature of the fungus, Puccinia gramanis tritici, commonly called "wheat rust" when it causes the very destructive disease of wheat all over the world, was not elucidated until nearly 1900. Yet, the Romans recognized it as such a destructive abnormality in their wheat fields that they gave it its own special god, a god which they called Rubias. The mythology which went with this god went like this.
Rubias, a god friendly to man, was relaxing and watching the world one day when he saw a boy light a fox's tail on fire. The frightened fox began to run madly and darted here and there through a wheat field. Rubias was so incensed at this cruelty that he decreed that there would be rust wherever the fox's flaming tail touched a wheat plant. There was and it became so ever after. And Rubias became known as "Rubias, the God of Rust."
The statement is fact. The Romans did have such a god.
PACKING MUD INTO A WOUND WHICH IS STARTING TO FESTER WILL OFTEN CURE IT. Fact or Fable?
The early trappers and mountain men coming into western America had no antibiotics or other drugs with which to treat themselves. Nor were there any drugstores from which they could secure such. When they or their horses were injured, they had to tough-it-out as best they could.
They soon learned from the Indians that certain types of mud packed into a wound which was becoming infected would do a great deal to heal it. Dirty mud in a wound sounds rather dumb, doesn't it?
Today, we know that the types of mud which the Indians taught the trappers to collect and use were loaded with filamentous fungi and bacteria which produce antibiotics. In fact, pharmaceutical companies have used such muds as the source from which they have isolated organisms which, then, can be grown in the laboratory for the production of antibiotics.
The statement has always been a factual one. Packing mud into the wounds did work for the Indians and for the early whites moving into the west. Now, we know why.
LEWIS CARROLL GOT SOME OF HIS IDEAS FOR ALICE IN WONDERLAND FROM ACCOUNTS OF AN HALLUCINOGENIC MUSHROOM. Fact or Fable?
A book entitled, A Plain and Easy Account of British Fungi, by M.C. Cooke, appeared in 1862. It was one of the earliest treatises of fungi and is still one of the classics in the area.
In his book, Cooke gave an account of the use of Amanita muscaria, the common "fly mushroom," by the Korjak tribesmen of.Kamchatka, Siberia. Cooke's account was after that of a Swede, Philip Johan von Strahlenberg, who had actually observed the Korjak using the mushroom to put themselves into an hallucinogenic and intoxicating state.
It is known that Lewis Carroll was planning his Alice in Wonderland just at the time of Cooke's book appearing. And he was known to have been very interested in Cooke's book.
Is it fact or fable that Carroll was influenced? Probably no one but Carroll really knows, but it would seem reasonable that he might have been.
NEW YORK CITY AND BOSTON ARE FULL OF IRISH COPS, AND THE GERMANS LOST WORLD WAR I, BECAUSE OF THE FUNGUS, PHYTOPHTHORA INFESTANS. Fact or Fable?
Phytophthora infestans is a fungus found in most of the moist soils of the world. It, and other species of Phytophthora, are very important economically because they attack many crop plants. Phytophthora infestans, for example, at tacks potato, tomato, pepper, petunia, and a considerable number of related plants.
Though the potato is often called "the Irish potato" or "the Irish cobber," it got that name only recently after it became the staple of the Irish diet. It is a New World plant and was introduced into Europe, probably by Sir Walter Raleigh, in relatively recent years. It readily became established in northern Europe and, within a century, became the staple of northern European diets. It still is. All of Ireland was one big potato patch by 1840. Much of Frederich the Great's military success has been attributed to his discovery that two potatoes per man per day was excellent sustenance for his army.
Ireland's peasant population was totally dependent on the potato by 1840. The years from 1840 to 1849 were all years of cool, wet weather. Such conditions are most conducive to infection of the potato by Phytophthora infestans and the disease which it causes, Potato Late Blight. Of course, the nature of the disease was not known at that time, but that made it no less devastating. Potato production was cut practically to zero and the great Irish Famine resulted. Certainly, Phytophthora infestans contributed heavily to the famine and the famine contributed to the extensive migration of the Irish people to the United States.
Between the time of Frederich the Great and World War I, the German population, also, had come to depend heavily on the potato. The summers of 1915, 1916, 1917, and 1918 - the World War I years - were all cool and wet and Potato Late Blight was very severe. This had happened before and the Germans had learned to control the disease by spraying their potatoes with copper and sulfate. This time, however, they were at war and they were isolated by military blockade. Their sources of copper were closed and they were unable to control the Late Blight. Consequently, the potato crop for these four years was essentially non-existent. No potatoes meant poor nutrition for the population. As we all known, they lost the war.
Both parts of the original statement are too strong, though the Irish part is not much too strong. Phytophthora infestans did have much to do with the Irish migration. Obviously, other factors played heavy roles in the downfall of the Kaiser in World War I. It is not all fable, however, that Phytophthora infestans did play some role.
A FUNGUS WITH THE RATHER MELODIC NAME OF ENDOTHIA PARASITICA IS RESPONSIBLE FOR MY NEVER HAVING ROASTED CHESTNUTS BY THE FIRE, AS DESCRIBED IN SONG AND PROSE AND POEM. Fact or Fiction?
"Chestnuts roasting by an open fire" is the first line of a lovely, old song. But I have never roasted chestnuts, nor have I eaten any, nor have I collected them. Black walnuts, butternuts, hickory nuts, yes -though none of them needed to be roasted before eating; chestnuts, no. Why, then, would one sing about chestnuts in an American song?
Under a spreading chestnut-tree
The village smithy stands;
The smith, a mighty man is he,
With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms
Are strong as iron bands.
The above is the first stanza of "The Village Blacksmith," a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow something over a hundred years ago. There are seven more stanzas extolling the virtues and appearance of the blacksmith. Most people today have little idea of what a blacksmith was -or did. Then, as an afterthought, most of them will ask, "And what is a spreading chestnut-tree?"
When the white man first arrived in America, the entire Appalachian uplift, from Maine to Georgia, was one great American chestnut forest. Lesser numbers of these trees spread to the Atlantic Ocean on the east and to the Mississippi River on the west.
The American chestnut was a magnificent tree. Trunks four feet in diameter were common and they grew seventy and eighty feet into the air. They provided excellent lumber and excellent shade -as Longfellow points out. The nuts were fine eating for man and man's pigs.
Although the exact date of introduction is a bit hazy, a different variety of chestnut tree was brought into the United States from Asia in about 1902. They were planted in the New York Zoological Garden. A disease - now known as Chestnut Blight - was first noticed on adjacent American chestnut trees in 1904. The fungus which causes Chestnut Blight, Endothia parasitiea, was brought in on the Asian trees where it did no real damage. When it found the American chestnut, however -a host which had no defenses against it -it was a gang-busters situation.
The disease was soon spreading onto chestnuts outside the park, outside of New York, and right into the great Appa.lachian chestnut forest. By 1933-34, the chestnut forest was gone. As the chestnut trees died, they were replaced, fortunately, by oaks and maples so that the forest, itself. was never really lost. But the chestnut trees were. The only ones I ever saw were three big, old, isolated trees way out in Missouri, well past the range of the fungus. Those three trees were still there in 1955; they are probably gone because of age by now.
Today, it makes little sense for the child to read the first lines of Longfellow's poem. The child will know neither the chestnut nor the smithy. No doubt, there were a few chestnut trees about in Illinois and Wisconsin where I grew up fifty years ago, but there were not enough to be noticed or to produce nuts to collect.
The statement is definitely not fable. The fungus, Endothia parasitiea, was introduced from Asia, it did destroy the great American chestnut forest, it did make it impossible for smithies to stand under the chestnut trees and for chestnuts to be collected for roasting by the fire. The statement is not totally factual because, out where I grew up, chestnut trees would not have been plentiful under the best of circumstances. Hence, chestnuts would not be common for roasting or anything else.
THE "FLY MUSHROOM" IS SO NAMED BECAUSE ITS JUICE KILLS FLIES. Fact or Fable?
The fungus in question is very much in folklore. It is found in the cultural lore of various northern European people. It is found in most of the forested lands of the northern hemisphere, but it is particularly common in the forest of northern Europe. It is even used as a symbol of the Christmas season in Sweden, much as we use holly and mistletoe.
This mushroom is a rather pretty thing. It has a white stalk and a bright red cap with white spots on it. It is about three-to-four inches in height.
For hundreds of years, this mushroom has been gathered, its juice squeezed out and diluted into a bit of water, and the concoction left on a table where it attracted flies to it . The flies died. Hence, the technical name affixed to the mushroom was Amanita muscaria, which literally means "fly Amanita." The technical name for the common house fly. you see, is "Musca." So, the mushroom has long been called the "fly mushroom" or the "fly agaric."
Does its juice really kill flies? Probably not. because, if one watches the flies long enough, one will find that most of them get up and stagger drunkenly away. It may not kill them. but it certainly inebriates the heck out of them.
Amanita musearia is an hallucinogenic mushroom. It is a property of this and of some other mushrooms -which man learned to use very long ago.
ONE OF THE MOST CERTAIN MODES OF MURDER OR SUICIDE WOULD BE TO USE POISON MUSHROOMS. Fact or Fable?
Man's literature and folklore is full of the use of toxic mushrooms as agents of murder and intrigue. Roman emperors, unwanted wives, lovers, and business partners have been dispatched quickly and efficiently in c!assics, ballads, and detective stories. Newspaper's carry accounts of inadvertent poisonings of mushroom eaters, present and past. Most of us probably think of mushrooms being predominantly
poisonous. That is why they are commonly called "toadstools."
There are about 5,000 species of mushrooms. Some 30-40 of them are sufficiently poisonous to be so designated. Several more are suspect in that they are known to make some people ill. Only a handful of the 5,000 really are known to kill.
The toxin in one mushroom, Amanita phalloides - often called "the destroying angel" because it is a beautiful, white mushroom - is one of the most potent poisons known, however. Some of the others are quite nasty and, without question, deadly.
All in all, murder or suicide with a mushroom would be a bad bet. It would be difficult to find the mushroom just when you wanted it. It would be difficult to get it ingested just when you wanted it eaten. The effects are generally not quick, clean, or undetectable. It would be best to heed the words of John Ramsbottom, a popular and eminent British mycologist, who wrote in his book, A Handbook of Larger British Fungi, the following:
Mycologists are prone to exaggerate the importance of mushroom poisonings in history. In their writing, we repeatedly find a list of eminent persons who have died allegedly from eating poisonous mushrooms, a list they could copy from each other without verification.
My statement is pure fable! A reasonable number of deaths are due to mushrooms, but they are almost totally accidental. And they generally happen to the non-illustrious.
DESIRE UNDER THE ELMS, AND OTHER SUCH AMERICAN TITLES, WILL BE MEANINGLESS TERMINOLOGY TO THE NEXT GENERATION OF AMERICANS AND JUST NOSTALGIA FOR THOSE OF MY GENERATION, ALL BECAUSE OF A EUROPEAN FUNGUS. Fact or fable?
The magnificent American elm trees which lined the streets of eastern and middle-western towns and cities of America are now on their last legs. The shady tunnels of huge, spreading elms are gone. Parks and lawns, completely shaded by huge American elms only 25 years ago, are now either populated with other trees or standing unshaded.
I grew up in a corner house in a town in northern Illinois where one could look down cool, shady tunnels of elms in all four directions. Today, there is not an elm in sight. The same is true of the other cities I have lived in in Michigan, Missouri, and Kansas.
The elms across America have been killed by the fungus , Ceratiocystis ulmi, which causes the disease known as Dutch Elm Disease, because it was first studied in Holland. The fungus arrived in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1932. That is only about 50 years ago. It was in a load of elm logs from the Carpathian Mountains, logs which had exceedingly beautiful whorls in them. They were destined to be used for making
of veneer because of this beautiful whorling. From Norfolk, the logs were sent to veneer mills in Connecticut, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis. Four points from which the fungus spread, consequently, resulted. Had it had to spread from a single point on the east coast, it, of course, would have been a much slower and the destruction less rapid.
Unfortunately, those same logs contained some European Elm Bark Beetles, the vector, or carrier, of the fungus. There is an American Elm Bark Beetle, another species, but we now know that is not nearly as efficient a vector as is its European counterpart. Had not both the beetle and the fungus been introduced and had the introduction not been into four centers in the eastern third of the United States, the destruction might not have reached the epidemic proportions that it did.
As it was, we had a new fungus in a new environment with a new host which it found very much to its liking. In addition, we had a new vector in a new environment with a new host on which to feed. As it fed, it moved the fungus from tree to tree. It all made for an epidemic of gangbuster proportions. In fact, there were really four epidemics of gangbuster proportions - one fanning out from Norfolk, another from Connecticut, a third from Cincinnati, and the fourth from Indianapolis. In forty years, the American elm was essentially gone.
There is no fable about the original statement. It is pure fact.
GOING "BERSERK" IS PRECEDED BY EATING MUSHROOMS. Fact or Fable?
My dictionary says that "berserk" is an adjective or an adverb which means "in a state of violent rage or frenzy." It says that the word "berserker" is a noun which means "a warrior clothed in bearskin (from the Old Norse; ber, meaning bear; serkr, meaning coat). It says, further, that, in Norse legend, a berserker was a warrior who worked himself into a state of frenzy before battle. Well, how does one
work one's self into a state of frenzy?
It has long been held - and continues to be -that the Vikings were so successful on their forays because they were frenzied when they leaped ashore from their longboats. It has been held, further, that they got into this state by nibbling on dried bits of the mushroom Amanita muscaria. This is the "fly mushroom," the one which has been thought to kill flies, but which has long been known to be hallucinogenic.
An examination of Viking clothing and armor indicates that they were not big people. They were only five feet, nine inches, or so, on the average. After they had nibbled their mushrooms and grabbed their two-handed swords, however, they thought they were nine-feet tall . They did wear bearskins, they did fight as if they were in a frenzy, Amanita muscaria does grow in profusion in Scandinavia -it is
even used as a Christmas symbol as we use mistletoe and holly. Perhaps there is some fact about the role of the mushroom in Viking success, perhaps there is some fable. No one has been able to actually pin such stories down. But they will not go away.
A paper which described how the Swedish soldiers in the 1814 Swedish-Norwegian war (which Sweden won) ate Amanita muscaria to "berserk" themselves before going into battle was presented before the Swedish Royal Academy. Its existence, therefore, can be authenticated.
Of course, that does not mean that the information in the paper can be authenticated.
It is a fact that a Swede, Philip Johan von Strahlenberg, visited various Siberian tribes in the early 18th Century and that he published a book in 1730 in Stockholm (in German) about his experiences. In his book, von Strahlenberg described how the Korjak tribe of Kamchatka used Amanita muscaria for its intoxicating effect. This information, therefore, was clearly in the Swedish literature very early. It was of interest to various people early, the mushroom abounds in Sweden , and the soldiers in 1814 certainly could have used them to "berserk"
themselves before they went into battle.
My wife used the word "berserk" in after-dinner conversation with a group of Swedes in Lund, Sweden, one evening. The conversation had been entirely in English, so, when she used "berserk, " three of the Swedish people immediately interjected, "You just used a Swedish word. It means 'bearskin'."
That led to conversation about the meaning of "berserk" in English, in Sweden, in Old Norse, and in its possible derivation. That, further, led to stories told by the grandparents of these various Swedish friends. It seems that the country Swedes of the middle 1800s held huge neighborhood parties about once a month during the long, dark winter. These were efforts to counteract the depressing weather circumstance of nearly sunless days during the winter. Much food , drink, gaiety, and, possibly, mushroom nibbling went on at these affairs.
As the party progressed, two men invariably would get frenzied with each other. With one thing leading to another, one would challenge the other to fight. Bearskins would be put on each and they would be belted together face-to-face. Each would have a knife in one hand. They would go at each other until they had mutually had enough , or until one was wounded , or, sometimes, until one was killed. This entire "berserking" event was so much expected to be part of the evening for someone - for two, actually - that the women always carried a clean sheet along to such parties. This was in case it was her husband who would be wounded or killed.
Do berserk and Amanita muscaria-eating go together? No doubt: there is some fable in all of the stories that they do . On the other hand , there may well be some fact in all of it, too.
SOME FUNGI ARE SO FRIENDLY TO MAN THAT THEY TRAP WORMS FOR HIM. Fact or Fable?
A number of tiny worms feed on the roots of various plants. Sometimes, they move up the plant above the soil and feed on leaf tissue, but, usually, it is the root tissue. These microscopic roundworms are called nematodes.
One of these nematodes is common in the Hawaiian soils in which pineapples are grown. Its main mode of nutrition is to pierce the root cells of pineapple plants and suck out the juices of the cells. Its mouth apparatus is well-adapted to this nutritional mode since it consists of a stylet, or a tiny needle. Many of these nematodes sucking on many of the root cells soon destroy a good bit of the root tissue and, hence, affects the function of the rool. A sick, non-productive plant results.
This nematode is called the Pineapple Sting Nematode. It cannot be controlled with chemicals or the usual protections against plant diseases.
Fungi belonging to the Order Zoopagales are found in various of the soils of the world. The word "Zoopagales" actually means "animal eaters." These fungi exist as ordinary saprophytic molds, feeding and utilizing decaying plant materials and other non-living organic materials in the soil, for much of their existence. However, they have the capacity to produce special structures for the purpose of trapping nematodes when the worms are about in the soil. It works like this.
As the nematodes wriggle through the soil and feed, they produce a chemical substance. The substance has been studied and named "nemin." It diffuses out in the soil and, as more and more nematodes are in the soil , more and more nemin is concentrated in the soil. We do not know why the nematodes produce nemin there must be some good biological reason for their doing such as, for example, the
attracting of other worms for mating -but we do know that the nemin is stimulatory to certain Zoopagales fungi.
When enough nemin is present in the vicinity of one of the fungi , the fungus is stimulated to produce a special branch. This branch is a ring, or half-ring, which, in turn , secretes a chemical which attracts nematodes. The worm wriggles into the ring, which is just the right size to let it get about half-way through before it becomes stuck. The fungus, then , grows another specil structure down into the body of the entrapped worm, a structure called a "haustorium," which secretes enzymes into the worm's body. These enzymes degrade the worm tissues and these dissolved materials are transported back through the fungus to serve as nutrients for its growth. When all the nematodes in the soil in the vicinity of the fungus are destroyed, the fungus loses its special traps and, again, goes back to happily existing on various non-living organic debris.
Can we find one of these Zoopagales which will do this to the Pineapple Sting Nematode? Indeed, we can. Can we, then, introduce this fungus into pineapple fields infested with the nematodes and get it to destroy the Pineapple Sting Nematodes there? Indeed, we can. And, indeed, we have.
The original statement is absolute fact. Other Zoopagales trap other nematodes attacking other plants. We are just learning to make use of these friendly fungi.
THE "SOMA" OF ALDOUS HUXLEY'S BRAVE NEW WORLD WAS THE SAME AS THE "SOMA OF ANTIQUITY" WHICH, IN TURN, WAS A MUSHROOM. Fact or Fable?
The reader of Brave New World - and, if one has not read it, one certainly should - knows that the inhabitants of this utopian civilization had regular access to, and use of, something called "soma." Soma was a drug which was non-narcotic, non-addictive, non-destructive, and had no after-effects. It had all the advantages of relaxation, mind-expansion, pleasant sensation, etc., without any of the usual disadvantages of such drugs. It was, then, the perfect drug.
If one examines the Rig-Veda, the sacred book of Hindu tradition - which, of course, most of us do not because of extreme language difficulties - one would find considerable reference to "the Soma of Antiquity. " This "Soma of Antiquity" is referred to as a plant. It was a plant which the ancient Aryans (of some 3,500 years ago) worshiped as a god. The identity of the plant has long since been lost.
A recent team effort has brought language, anthropological, and mycological expertise together to examine the Rig-Veda from a new perspective. These experts have concluded that the plant known as "the Soma of Antiquity" was a mushroom, not a higher plant at all. Furthermore, they have concluded that it was our old friend the fly mushroom, Amanita muscaria, the same mushroom which continues
to pop up in the lore of other parts of the world.
Is Huxley's soma and the Rig-Veda soma the same thing? And are they both from the hallucinogenic mushroom, Amanita muscaria? I am certain that I do not know. Regarding the "Soma of Antiquity," those who have studied the Rig-Veda are reputable authorities in their various fields. Regarding the soma of Brave New World, we can say this:
It is well known that Aldous Huxley was much interested in psychedelic drugs. It is well known that he was well-read and widely informed and that he was particularly competent in biological matters. I do not know whether he knew of Rig-Veda, but it is not difficult to imagine that he did. He had to get his name for his fictional substance from somewhere. Why not from that source?
Fact or fable? In either event, it makes for a fascinating story. Perhaps, as is the case with so many such stories, there is a bit of each in it.
THE PRESENT, WIDE.SPREAD, ANGLO-SAXON REACTION TO ALL MUSHROOMS AS POISONOUS, SLIMY, AND OTHERWISE "NASTY
TOADSTOOLS" CAME ABOUT BECAUSE PRIESTS AND OTHER HOLY MEN, KINGS, AND OTHER ARISTOCRATS CONSIDERED THEM TO BE "FOOD FOR THE GODS" AND, HENCE, TABOOED THEM IN ORDER TO KEEP THEM FOR THEMSELVES. Fact or Fable?
When one talks about collecting and eating mushrooms, most Americans ask, or mumble to themselves, "Who would want to?" There will be some in most groups , however, who like the taste of mushrooms so much that their mouths will begin to water; they will drool and dribble down their chins just thinking about eating mushrooms.
How does it happen that some of us think of mushrooms as toadstools - slimy, nasty, poisonous, despicable things to be left completely alone - whereas others of us think of them as among the most delectable eating one can possibly sink one's teeth into? Food for the gods, if you will! And therein, we think, lies the answer to the question I have posed.
Those of us who are interested in fungi and mushrooms classify people into two groups. One we call "mycophobes." "Myco" means "fungus" and "phobes" means "fear" so the word means "fungus fearers."
The other group we call "mycophiles." These are "fungus lovers." Philadelphia, remember, is the "city of brotherly love." The "phile" part means "love."
If we Americans look at the countries from which our ancestors came, we find that all of us who trace our origins from the British Isles, Germany, Holland, Belgium, most of France, Scandinavia, Greece, and some of the other eastern Mediterranean countries are mycophobes. We fear - and , indeed, hate - mushrooms. So did our ancestors. And so do the people who now live in those countries today. The single exception is Sweden, for a reason which we shall get to in a moment.
Those of us who trace our ancestry to Southern France and much of Italy, Russia, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Poland, and the Balkan countries turn out to be mycophiles. We love mushrooms and go merrily hopping through the woods and fields gathering them so that we can take them home, cook them, and eat them.
Now, back to Sweden where we find mycophiles when we might expect to find mycophobes. In the late 1700s, a Swedish princess, who later became queen, married a member of the French royalty from the south of France. When his wife became queen, he became King Karl, an exceptionally popular and beloved member of Swedish royalty. Karl, as we said, grew up in the south of France. As such, he was a mycophile - he and his people were mushroom lovers.
Sweden was a land rich in mushrooms -and it is today. It has a climate with plenty of moisture and not too much sunshine, which means that the Swedish forests and fields are teeming with mushrooms much of the year. So Karl, as Prince, and, later, as King, happily roamed the countryside gathering mushrooms which he took back to the palace for eating.
Since King Karl was extremely well-liked and popular, the Swedish people emulated him and soon they, without even realizing that they had always been mycophobes, were blithely gathering -and eating -mushrooms from the countryside; they had become mycophiles. And so they remain to this day. In fact, they have even worked mushrooms into their Christmas decorations just as we use holly and mistletoe.
But except for the Swedes, all the rest of the western Europeans - and those of us in America who trace our ancestry to western Europe -are mycophobes. We hate and fear mushrooms. Why is that?
To answer the question bluntly, it is because mushrooms were tabooed by the religious leaders of our ancestors long ago. Mushrooms were, literally, viewed as "food for the gods" -and for those humans who acted as agents of the gods. Mushrooms were simply too good for the ordinary mortal, for the peasant, for the common man. So the holy men put taboos on them!
How did they put taboos on mushrooms which made the common man leave them alone? One must remember that the holy men of thousands of years ago were listened to as the most intelligent, the most knowledgeable, the most learned of men. And that they were considered to be agents of. spokesmen for, the gods. Consequently, when they said that mushrooms were poisonous, slimy, evil, stools on which toads sat, involved with fairies, witches, and devils, the people listened. They listened - and they left them alone! And they taught their children to leave them alone!
But why would the holy men of 5,000 years or more ago do this? Why would they put taboos on lowly mushrooms? Why would they teach the common people to be mycophobes?
In the first place, we are pretty certain they did this because mushrooms were thought to be very good eating. They tasted good - and the fewer the ordinary people ate, the more would be available for them.
But a more important reason -and we're quite certain about this - was that a few of these mushrooms were powerful hallucinogens when eaten. Now, what better way for holy men to rise above ordinary men, to peer into the future, to see visions which the peasantry couldn't see, than to nibble on hallucinogenic mushrooms? And to hallucinate in vivid, living technicolor!
Once learned and holy men had learned of this effect from certain mushrooms, however, it wouldn't do to have ordinary people discovering the same thing. Otherwise, they, too, might have visions, insights into the surreal, and dreams in vivid, living technicolor. If ordinary men did this, they would have no need for special, holy men. So the holy men put their taboos on all mushrooms. It wouldn't do to put it on only certain mushrooms and then have some folk pick the wrong one and end up with the good visions. The taboos were put on all mushrooms. Touch one and you get warts, eat them and you will die, let your child near one and the child may go blind.
So you and I - or, at least, many of us of European ancestry - are mycophobes. We are afraid of mushrooms and we hate them as we hate snakes. You will remember that many of us are afraid of, and dislike, snakes, probably because of the Garden of Eden incident. Mushrooms were long ago placed in that same category, They do not deserve such treatment. Most mushrooms are quite harmless, useful members of the biological community, though , indeed, a few of them are poisonous enough so that one needs to exercise some caution when one embarks on using them for food.
Is there evidence that mushrooms were tabooed in early cultures? One can find a wide variety of bits-and-pieces of such evidence in superstitions, in rituals, and folklore and, even, in the archeological record. The fly mushroom, for example, has long been labelled as being poisonous, but we now know that it is not truly toxic; it is hallucinogenic. As one digs back into its relationships with man, one finds it popping up regularly as being involved in rituals, in visions, in man's activities.
Hallucinogenic fungi involved in religious rituals have been found in very recent years in Mexico and Central America. Their use is always tied to special ritualistic use. They are not for everyday use, not for everyday people. Certain of the bracket fungi are associated with fire-making in the Danish archeological record; fire-making was a priestly enterprise. And so on.
Is the mycophobia many of us exhibit related to the tabooing of mushrooms in our cultural heritage fact or fable? There is unquestionably some fact in it all, but, no doubt, there is some fable in there, too.
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