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CA Mushrooms

Book Review

Introduction to Mycology in the Tropics

By Meike Piepenbring
2015, American Phytopathological Society
Hardcover: 366 pages
ISBN 978-0-89054-456-3

Mycology in the tropics is still at the pioneer stage. Collections are lacking for specimens not only because the usually high humidity interferes with their preservation, but also because visits to the tropics by mycologists have been relatively limited. One mycologist whose visits have not been limited is Meike Piepenbring, a professor at the Goethe Institute in Frankfurt, Germany, who spends a large chunk of each year in western Panama. The publisher bills her new book Introduction to Mycology of the Tropics as “a basic tool for teachers” (i.e., a textbook), but it’s more, much more than that. Among other things, it’s an excellent introduction to mycology itself.  

The book’s opening section provides a window on fungal systematics, mycological jargon, and the history of mycology in the tropics. With respect to the history, the reader learns that David Livingston (of “Dr. Livingston, I presume” fame) was the first person to document fungi scientifically in Africa. The subsequent sections focus on tropical basidiomycetes, ascomycetes, glomeromycetes, would-be fungi such as oomycetes, lichens, and slime molds. Each section includes simplified phylogenetic trees, information about biochemical assets, geographical distribution, ecology, and useful bibliographic references. The book also has dozens of easy-to-read call out boxes with titles like How Can Lesions on Leaves Caused by Fungi Be Distinguished from Those Caused by Algae, Insects, and other Agents?  

Ms. Piepenbring’s initial mycological interest was smuts, so it’s not surprising that the book tends to emphasize phytopathologically significant species more than, for instance, fleshy edibles. After all, considerably more plant disease fungi reside in the tropics than in temperate regions. Examples in the book include the rust Hemileia vastatrix currently affecting coffee plantations in Central America, the various smuts that affect beans, bananas, and peas, and the Colletotrichum species that affect chili peppers, sorghum, maize, and avocados. But hosts for fungal pathogens in the tropics are not simply plants. The book also mentions the humidity-loving hyphomycetes that delight in growing on glass and thus take up residence on the lenses of microscopes, hand lenses, and cameras (including, blast it, mine!).  

Weighing slightly more than 4 pounds, Introduction to Mycology in the Tropics is too hefty to be used in the field, but its superb photographs — all of which seem to have been taken by Ms. Piepenbring herself — will help the reader identify fungi he or she has brought back to their tropical guesthouse or tent. Many are species such as Rhytidhysteron rufulum, Encoelia cubensis, and the spider parasite Ophiocordyceps caloceroides that seldom appear in guide books. Since honesty is the best policy, “possiblys” and “sp.’s” occur frequently in the captions accompanying the photographs; in similar books, the publisher would have excluded such words for fear they might scare away potential buyers. (Here I should mention the equally fine photographs Ms. Piepenbring took for Los hongos de Panama, a book in Spanish she co-authored with the legendary Gastón Guzmán.)  

In short, this is a must for every scientific or professional mycological library. Likewise, it’s a must for mycologists with only a casual interest in the tropics. Upon reading it, the interest of such individuals might shift from casual to serious, and they might head to the tropics so they can study the fungi there.

— Review by Lawrence Millman
— Originally published in Fungi