Book Review

Toads and Toadstools:
The Natural History, Folklore, and Cultural Oddities of a Strange Association

By Adrian Morgan
ISBN 0-89087-777-7 (soft cover)
Celestial Arts, Berkeley, CA; 1995; 208 pp.; $24.95

"Consider the curious case of the toad and the fungus . . . Why should a fungus be named for a toad? Toads are not known to eat fungi, nor do they share any behavioral, biological, or ecological traits. Toads certainly do not seem to view fungi as stools. So when considering the case of this curious nomenclature, there is little apparent logic. However, this decidedly odd coupling appears all over the world, on every continent save Antarctica, and in a bewildering number of cultures across a staggering span of time."

In this interesting new book, Adrian Morgan attempts to provide an answer to the question "how come we call them toadstools?" I won't spoil things by giving away the ending to this volume, other than to say that sometimes the process of the journey is more rewarding than the destination.

CoverMorgan covers a lot of ground in eight chapters entitled: What's in a Name?; The Toadstool in Europe; The Toad in Europe; The Toad in Witchcraft; The Fly Agaric in Europe and Asia; The Americas; Asia, Africa, and Australasia; and The Toad and the Toadstool. If my own experience is at all indicative, some of the ground, such as the quotations from Pliny and Gerard (from The Grete Herball) and references to the Wassons' experiences with the religious use of psilocybes in native Mexican cultures, will be very familiar to anyone who has even a passing knowledge of the cultural aspects of mushrooms. However, much of the information here probably will be new to most readers. Throughout the book, I found myself impressed with the breadth of research that went into Morgan's treatment. That is the greatest strength of the book and one that makes it interesting. The other strength is the artwork. Morgan is a talented artist and provided a large number of very fine mushroom and toad illustrations which grace the pages of the book.

Unfortunately, Morgan's skills as researcher and artist are not matched by those of Morgan the writer and editor. The text tends to be very loosely knit, rambles a lot, and jumps from place to place. Often the material I was reading did not seem to have much to do with the subject indicated by the chapter title or subheading. I felt that the book would have benefitted immensely from the hand of a strong editor. However, I tend to be somewhat obsessed with writing that is concise and logically flowing, so I suspect that most readers would not be nearly as bothered by the stream-of-consciousness style. A critical review by someone with more mycological expertise than Morgan would also have helped as there are many inaccuracies and potentially misleading statements about mushrooms, which leads me to be cautious about accepting unquestioned the information about toad biology.

These complaints aside, there is much of interest in these pages and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the relationships between mushrooms, toads, and human cultures. The best way to approach it is to sit back in a cozy spot with a glass of wine or cup of hot chocolate and enjoy the journey through the many historical vignettes that fill the pages. You'll come away with some interesting insights into how human beings perceive and relate to their natural environment.

— Review by Steve Trudell, Seattle, WA
— Originally published in The Mycophile 38:4, 1997