Up from below

Small and inoffensive?

The woodcock strip has come alive with sinister toadstools. Bit by bit over the past few weeks, red balls have emerged from the undergrowth, thrusting aside fallen sitka needles and dead grass. At first, I took them to be fly agaric, the classic red and white spotted toadstool that everyone knows is deadly. However, as the caps fanned open and no white spots emerged, I began to have doubts. With dazzling white stalks and undersides, slugs set about chewing away sections of  the red upper coating  to reveal a soft and misleadingly inviting white interiors. It was only when I posted a sample photograph on iSpot that I had a formal identification.

Many poisonous toadstools have threatening names like “death cap” and “destroying angel”, and what I had found was no different. Russula emetica is popularly known as “the sickener”, belonging to a fairly toxic family of fungi with a widespread distribution across much of the northern hemisphere. People who eat raw “sickeners” quickly suffer from intense stomach cramps, diarrhoea and vomiting. Other similar species of fungus from the russula group are edible, but they differ so slightly in appearance that it is a risky business gathering and eating them with any confidence.

Apparently, red squirrels have been found to gather “sickeners” to store and eat them at a later date when the toxins have declined and the toadstools are safer, making those little red devils unexpectedly wise and forward thinking. I was beginning to think that they are rather foolish, given that I have seen half a dozen squashed on the roads over the past few weeks.

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