Book Review

Gljive Srbije i Zapadnog Balkana
(Fungi of Serbia and the Western Balkans)

By Branislav Uzelac
2009 / 464 pages
ISBN 978-86-912677-0-4 (hardback)

So, you thought pronouncing the scientific names of mushrooms was difficult? They’ll seem like child’s play after having a go at Serbian. For instance, according to a Serb friend, the main part of the title can be roughly approximated as GLEE'VAY SUR'BEEYAY, but with the "L" changed to Spanish “LL” or (better) the Italian “GLI.” He also recommended having a beer before attempting that sort of “Y” sound after a “GL.”

Although this treatment of a large number of species from the Balkans region has been available for a few years, it is little known in North America. The author and principal photographer, Branislav Uzelac, is not a professional mycologist but rather a regionally well-known naturalist, television personality, and writer who has developed a passion for fungi. He is the founder and president of the Mycologists’ Association of Serbia, the group responsible for publication of the book. Interestingly, the foreword was written (in English) by Harvard mycologist, Anne Pringle.

The format of the book is very similar to that of Michael Jordan’s The Encyclopedia of Fungi of Britain and Europe. Thus, it is large—8.5 x 11.5 inches (21.5 x 30.5 cm)—and thus suited for use in the home rather than the field. Overall it is attractive and the binding and production quality are high. Introductory materials occupy the first 26 pages—explanations of what fungi are, how they relate to other organisms, aspects of their biology and ecology, how they are classified, the diversity of macrofungi, uses of fungi for food and medicine, and the main types of mushroom poisoning. There are no keys in the usual sense. Rather, following the introduction, there is a series of 22 montages representing major morphotypes and, within the gilled morphotype, different families, each accompanied by brief comments. Although such an approach is quite amenable for use with the major morphotypes, I’m not sure it works as well when attempting to determine to which family a gilled mushroom belongs, at least for those without a lot of experience. Next comes the approximately 1200 illustrated species descriptions. A short glossary, indexes to scientific and Serbian colloquial names (the latter far shorter than the former), and literature references complete the book.

The main part of the volume is the species descriptions, which are divided into those belonging to the Ascomycota and the Basidiomycota. Within each of those groups, the species are organized following a taxonomic scheme and listed by scientific name, including author. The Serbian common name is given if the species has one (most don’t), and a common synonym is given when appropriate. Each description includes a summary of macroscopic features, key microscopic features, ecological occurrence, and edibility. Some include very brief comments. The descriptions come three-to-the-page, placed one above the other adjacent to the inner edge, and each is accompanied by an adjacent photo toward the outer edge. The photos are of good size (3 x 3.5 inches / 7.5 x 9 cm) and vary in quality from excellent to substandard. On the whole, I would rate most as quite adequate for identification purposes. The poorer ones often are of a single specimen, shown from too-great distance, and in which key ID features are not visible. I suspect the inclusion of such images stems from the attempt to show as many species as possible and the fact that it is difficult to find a good-quality photo, from a specific area, for each and every species of mushroom that lives there.

The species include many commonly illustrated ones, such as Amanita muscaria, Boletus edulis, and Hypholoma fasciculare, but also a number of others that are encountered much less often in popular guides. The large number of species included from what is a fairly small region allows the book to provide a closer-to-complete picture of its macrofungi than is the case with most mushroom guides and this perhaps is its strongest feature.

Sales of the book benefit the Mycologists’ Association of Serbia, which would like to produce an English version some day, and helping overseas mycologists certainly is in keeping with NAMA’s origins as a people-to-people organization. However, it seems to me a tough sell to get North American mushroomers to pony up over $200 (with shipping) for a book that most cannot read in order that eventually they will be able to buy a version that they can read. For comparison, the very similar Jordan book, albeit shorter at 384 pages and just over 1000 species, was only $65 when it came out in late 2004. The problem is also exacerbated by the choice of NHBS as the outlet for the book as its prices virtually always are higher than those of other sources, often by a wide margin. If you can afford it, Gljive Srbije will provide you with many hours’ enjoyment getting acquainted with the mushrooms from another part of the world and provide the satisfaction of knowing you contributed to a worthy cause. If you can’t afford the book, perhaps consider making a donation to the Mycologists’ Association (http://www.gljivari.org.rs/) to support the work of our fellow Serb mycologists.

— Review by Steve Trudell, Seattle, WA
— Originally published in The Mycophile