Book Review

Ascomycetes in Colour:
Found and Photographed in Mainland Britain

By Peter I. Thompson
2013 / xxxv + 367 pages
Xlibris Corporation
ISBN 978-1-4797-4755-9 (Softcover, $68.78)
ISBN 978-1-4797-4756-6 (Hardcover, $100.78)

Other than the large showy morels, gyromitras, and helvellas, and the brightly colored cups such as the sarcoscyphas, the ascomycetes don’t get much coverage in typical field guides. Thus, those North Americans interested in identifying many of our other fascinating asco species have relied primarily upon Fred Seaver’s two volumes of The North American Cup-Fungi and the first volume of the “Swiss books,” Fungi of Switzerland, with its excellent line drawings and color photographs. Recently, the Associazione Micologica Bresadola published another very useful color-photo-illustrated book, Ascomiceti d’Italia by Gianfranco Medardi (see mini-review below). Other European resources, such as British Ascomycetes by R.W.G. Dennis and the first volume of Nordic Macromycetes, like Seaver’s works, have limited or no images and no color photographs. Thus, I was excited to receive an e-mail announcing the publication of a new color book on British ascomycetes.

Self-published by the author via a print-on-demand service, this is a weighty large-format (page size 8½ × 11 inches) book printed on heavy stock. It includes descriptions and photographs of 700 species of ascomycetes, limited by: (1) no species whose mature fruiting bodies measure less than 0.1 mm; (2) no species whose presence can only be detected by deformities of the host tissue (such as taphrinas) or whose fruiting body is embedded completely within the host tissue; and (3) no species whose identification would require that it be brought into culture.

The book begins with a 6-page introduction that describes the general content, Thompson’s philosophy and decisions in writing it, and how he photographs (on film!), collects, and studies ascomycetes. A non-illustrated glossary is included, with definitions apparently written by Thompson. A few of them are inaccurate and several others incomplete or somewhat misleading, so it would have been better to have taken definitions from an established mycological glossary or dictionary. Keys to the species belonging to genera or groups of similar genera for which four or more species are included in the book follow. The leads, many of which are polychotomous, are short and are based on a mix of macroscopic and microscopic features, so a microscope is a definite must. Unfortunately, there is no key to genera, so one must have a working knowledge of a large number of genera in order to locate the proper key to use. A short list of relevant books, articles, and websites is included, along with a useful table of cross-references that lists all 700 species (by number) and gives corresponding page or image numbers of those species in five other works—Dennis, the Swiss book, and Medardi, plus Microfungi on Land Plants and Microfungi on Miscellaneous Substrates, both by Ellis & Ellis.

The 700 species accounts are presented two per page, one above the other. Each includes the scientific name, with author, in a header box, along with one to a few principal synonyms. The names are up-to-date, principally following those listed in Index Fungorum. No common names are given because hardly any of these species have them. On the left side of the entry is the color photograph (most about 3½ × 2 inches in size) and a line drawing of one or a few spores and, occasionally, a hair. Paraphyses are not illustrated. On the right side are the macroscopic and microscopic descriptions and the date and location of the collection illustrated. The descriptions are understandably brief as there is not a lot to be said about most ascomycetes. I was disappointed to find that there are no general comments such as comparisons with similar species, as these can be exceedingly useful.

Because Thompson endeavored to include as many species as he could (and giving us 700 species, all of which he personally collected, represents an incredible undertaking [and that’s not all, see the final paragraph below]), it is to be expected that not every photograph would be a contest-winner. Sometimes the only material you find is not in the greatest condition or not the most photogenic. And I can attest to the difficulty of photographing the tinier species. Nonetheless, although, with few exceptions, the photos are adequate for identification purposes, many could have been better. A rather large number suffer from a definite yellow cast, which seems to have been introduced in the printing process, as the color in Thompson’s photos I have seen elsewhere is much truer. A number would have been improved by enlargement and cropping to better show the subject, and the lighting and color of others would have been greatly improved by judicious use of flash (as is the case for several other British mushroom photographers I have met, Thompson never uses flash, even for fill or to augment the ambient light).

The yellow cast of the photos could have resulted from the fact that the publisher printed the text and images on a dingy olivaceous yellow background. Bright white stock would have been a much better choice. The outer margin of each page has a ½-inch decorative border that, although attractive, unfortunately adds nothing useful. Getting rid of it, reducing the width of the inner margin a bit, and doing a little re-arranging would have allowed the photos to be printed at a larger size and made room for some commentary.

So, are the book’s shortcomings sufficient to prevent my recommending it? Most definitely not. Taken together, Thompson’s volume, the Swiss book, and Medardi treat 992 species. Of the 700 species in this book, 423 are unique to it (among the three). The Swiss book has 101 “unique” species, while Medardi has 124. Clearly one needs them all!

No sooner had this review been submitted than the color-photo-illustrated Ascomycete Fungi of North America: A Mushroom Reference Guide, authored by Michael Beug and Alan and Arleen Bessette (“3-B”) was released by the University of Texas Press. Although a full review of it will appear in a future issue of FUNGI, some comments on how its availability might affect one’s decision regarding Thompson’s book are in order. Three-B provides descriptions and color photos of 475 species, of which 275 are fully described and accompanied by a large photo and 200 are described briefly in the Comments sections of featured species and illustrated with very small photos in the lengthy key at the front of the book. With this new addition, the above numbers change as follows. Taken together, the four volumes treat 1264 species. Of the 700 species in Thompson’s book, 396 are unique to it (among the four). The Swiss book has 82 “unique” species, while Medardi has 99 and 3-B 272. So no change in my general recommendation—clearly one needs them all!

Although the price for Ascomycetes in Colour isn’t cheap, it isn’t out of line for a book of this size and content (it costs more than Medardi and 3-B, but less than the Swiss book). Plus, buyers become eligible to receive, via e-mail, additional species as Thompson completes work on them. As of the end of 2013, 26 such pages (52 more species) had been distributed, and they have continued to arrive at a rate of about one new page per week, each accompanied by an updated index and table of literature cross-references. So, if you are a fan of the ascos, this book should be a must for your library. It will get quite a workout.

— Review by Steve Trudell, Seattle, WA
— Originally published in Fungi Magazine