Mr. Bloomfield's Orchard:
The Mysterious World of Mushrooms, Molds, and Mycologists
Last summer, I was fortunate to attend the 7th International Mycological Congress, in Oslo, Norway. Most of the roughly 450 talks were presented in half-day sessions with suitably dense titles, like "Character evolution in ascomycetes: phylogenetic approaches employing molecular and morphological data," "Cell wall: molecular organization and biosynthesis," and "Taxonomic aspects of Ophiostoma and Ceratocystis and their relationships with hosts, vectors, and effects on international trade." However, one session dared to differ-"Sex and murder: the extraordinary fungal life cycle." It featured presentations focused on ink cap sex, sexless super guns, and bug murder in the rainforest. Organizer of the session was Nik Money, a transplanted Englishman, now in mycological residence at Miami University, Ohio.
With the IMC-7 session for background, it came as little surprise that the opening chapter of this new book recounted Money's memories of a stinkhorn hunt, complete with visions of "some degenerate ... hiding under the needles and ... evidently aroused by the experience," perhaps part of "a colony of sexual deviants fixated upon live burial." Although the subject of sex reappears many times throughout the nine chapters of the book, the images used are much less evocative than those in the opening pages.
Each chapter is a stand-alone essay, with no obvious thread connecting the chapters other than their focus on fungi and those who study them. Thus, there is no need to feel compelled to read the chapters in order or to cover them all in one sitting. Titles and topics include "Offensive Phalli and Frigid Caps" (stinkhorn hunting, diversity of gasteromycetes, and mechanisms of spore release); "Insidious Killers" (human mycoses-diseases caused by fungi); "What Lies Beneath" (hyphal form of fungi and how they grow); "Metamorphosis" (ascomycete diversity, including yeasts, molds, parasites, lichens, morels, and truffles); "The Odd Couple' (biographical sketches of mycologists A. H. R. Buller and C. G. Lloyd, both lifelong bachelors though not a "couple"); "Ingold's jewels" (tales of the aquatic microfungi that form interestingly shaped spores, decompose leaves, and were discovered and studied by Terence Ingold, plus chytrids, water molds, and mechanisms of zoospore release); "Siren Songs"' (the fascinating roles of hormones in fungal reproduction); "Angels of Death" (mushroom poisoning, black mold in buildings, biological warfare, and other aspects of fungal toxins); and "Mr. Bloomfield's Orchard" (Irish potato famine, rusts, other fungi that attack plants, and why the orchard is important enough to be used for the book's title).
These are all interesting topics that convey a good sense of what it is to be a fungus in the broad sense of the word (many of the organisms discussed, such as water molds, are now thought not to be "true" fungi). However, I feel that the "dark side" of fungi is over-emphasized, providing more fodder for the widespread impression of fungi as unspeakable menaces to our well-being. To the contrary, the vast majority of fungi do nothing to harm us and, in fact, are essential cogs in the ecosystems upon which we all depend-for example, the fungi we have domesticated for useful purposes (think penicillin, bread, bleu cheese, and beer).
The writing is clear, easy to understand, laced with humor. It reveals Money's passion for fungi and makes for enjoyable reading. The text is accompanied by black and white illustrations—mostly photos of mycologists and unfortunates afflicted by fungal diseases, and simple line drawings of fungal structures. They are effective, though not terribly exciting. Color photographs or paintings of the mushrooms and other macrofungi discussed, or scenes such as the woodland where the stinkhorn hunt was held would have been welcome additions.
Most mushroom hunters would get greater enjoyment from their hobby if they understood more about the biology of their quarry. Here's a painless way to get some of that knowledge. This book is an entertaining introduction to many aspects of fungal biology, accessible to and recommended for all.
— Review by Steve Trudell, Seattle, WA
— Originally published in The Mycophile 44:3, 2003