Book Review

Fungi of Southern Australia

By Neale L. Bougher and Katrina Syme
University of Western Australia Press, 1998
Available from CSIRO

Although I tend to be skeptical of the glowing words of praise contained in the forewords to most books, I fully agree with Roger Hilton that Neale Bougher (mycologist and mycorrhiza researcher) and Katrina Syme (botanical illustrator) “have produced a book that will delight scholars, artists, and naturalists alike.” Given that broad audience, it perhaps is not surprising that this book is difficult to categorize. It isn’t really a field guide, nor is it an artsy coffee table book, nor is it a technical treatise—but it is a bit of all three and, as Hilton goes on to say “is the type of book by which amateurs become well informed and specialists consolidate their knowledge.” This is particularly important nowadays, because well informed amateurs will play a critical role if we are to develop a broader and deeper understanding of the fungi which share our terrestrial environments.

Cover

The stated objectives of this book are to introduce a broad sample of the fungi in Australia (as typified by Western Australia representatives), and to provide guidelines about how to collect, describe, and identify them. It succeeds fully in both aims. The information presented in the first six chapters of the book (which comprise nearly 100 pages) reflects the second objective. Thus, these chapters provide background information and detailed how-to advice for collecting and studying mushrooms, and for compiling scientifically useful documentation. Although pretty much all of this information is available from other sources, this is the most comprehensive compilation that has appeared in several years, and it is clear and well written. A useful summary description of the environment and fungi of southwestern Australia is followed by information on fungi in general. Then comes information on how to find, collect, and process fungi and how to describe them both macroscopically and microscopically. All of this is augmented by an extensive glossary which conveniently includes cross-references to illustrations in the book that exemplify the feature being defined.

Chapter 7 comprises the larger part of the book—illustrations and detailed descriptions of 125 fungi. Because the fungi of southwestern Australia have not been well characterized, there was no attempt to provide a comprehensive survey of the known fungi, but rather to provide a representative sampling of many of the common and some of the rare fungi of the area. Thus, there are no keys in the book. The 125 species include a sampling of ascomycetes, jelly fungi, and all the typical groups of larger basidiomycetes such as gilled mushrooms and puffballs. Hypogeous fungi such as truffles are particularly well represented. Each species is presented on two facing pages with text and line drawings on the left-hand page and a lovely water color illustration on the right. Each species is introduced in a brief paragraph, one or two synonyms and edibility information are provided, and then the macroscopic and microscopic features are described in fair detail. Microscopic features such as spores, basidia, cheilocystidia, and cap cuticle structure are illustrated in large clear drawings. The macroscopic information is presented in accessible terminology, and includes useful information such as Methuen color designations. The terminology in the microscopic descriptions is a bit more technical. The descriptions are based on actual collections, and these are listed in an appendix. My only complaint about them is they are too short on comparative information for “lookalikes.” Although I realize there is only so much room on a page, some of the microscopic detail could have been shortened (for example, size and shape of basidia rarely are needed to clinch an identification) to make room for information that I would consider to have greater usefulness for most people. Alternatively, the three-narrow-column layout, with minimal hyphenation, could have been changed to allow more information to be presented.

The water-color illustrations are beautiful and make the book worthy of a place on your coffee table. Many quite striking mushrooms are portrayed, arranged among natural habitat elements, and they are aesthetically and scientifically well rendered. However, despite the general excellence of the illustrations I must voice two reservations—first, several of the pictures of amanitas do not show the volvas which are critical identification features, and second, there is a subtle unnatural feel to many of the compositions. In an attempt to show both upper and lower sides of caps, the perspective is very low (sort of a “bug’s-eye” view) and many of the mushrooms are shown tilted slightly backward or forward such that they remind me of buildings lurching after an earthquake. I found these unnatural poses somewhat annoying, although it wasn’t until I had made it through half the book before I realized why. I would have preferred a higher perspective and one or two mushrooms simply laid on their sides, but, in fairness, this may reflect the fact that I usually observe mushrooms through the lens of a camera. A few other mushroomers to whom I showed the book were not nearly so concerned about this as I was.

So, for the bottom line—should a North American mushroomer buy this book? If you are just interested in identifying the mushrooms in your own locale, then probably not. Only about 20% of the species included occur in North America and these are mostly cosmopolitan ones that are included in many other books. On the other hand, if you’re a book nut like me, you ought to get it. Where else can you see illustrations of a cortinarius with a saccate volva, exotic stinkhorns, the multi-tiered pagoda fungus, a brilliant purple leucopaxillus, and amanitas with green, yellow, pink, and orange gills all in one place? For many, the good how-to information will constitute a strong selling point. Also, if you’re interested in the global diversity of mushrooms or are planning a trip to Australia, you’ll want this for armchair foraying or pre- and post-trip study (it’s too heavy to take with you). All-in-all, this is a fine book—in philosophy, content, and presentation. Perhaps Bougher and Syme and a dedicated army of Australian amateur mycologists will produce follow-up volumes some day!

— Review by Steve Trudell, Seattle, WA
— Originally published in The Mycophile 40:1, 1999