CA Mushrooms
CA Mushrooms

Book Review

The Kingdom of Fungi

By Jens H. Petersen
2013, Princeton University Press
ISBN-10: 0691157545
ISBN-13: 978-0691157542
264 pp.; $29.95

Often there’s a huge disjunct between a laudatory blurb on the back cover of a book and that book’s not necessarily laudatory content. This is not the case with Danish mycologist Jens Petersen’s The Kingdom of Fungi, about which Harvard University’s Don Pfister has blurbed: “It melds the traditionalclassification still found in most field guides with the findings from recent phylogenetic studies. The photographs are absolutely stunning and will be the talk of the town.” I will go a step further and say that not only the photographs, but the book itself will end up being the talk of any town where mycophiles dwell

The book’s 800+ photographs accomplish a singular feat: they display the diagnostic features of a particular species—gill attachment or lack thereof, apothecial hairs, etc.—without sacrificing esthetics. Who would have thought that dry rot or obligate plant pathogens like Puccinias could be beautiful? That many of the fungi were photographed through a dissecting scope doesn’t diminish their appeal at all. Quite the contrary. The Pilobolus looks like an exquisite chandelier. Petersen almost always includes the scale beneath his images, and thus you won’t think that a Pilobolus is actually chandelier-sized. He even indicates scale for a photograph of a fairy ring taken from an airplane!

If I stopped here, I would be doing the book a disservice. For the text is remarkable, too. It describes the ecology and biology of fungi, where fungi grow, and human interactions with fungi. Being a Scandinavian, Petersen is a man of few words, but he makes each of those words count. Here’s one of his descriptions: “In some cases, a parasitic fungus is dependent on the host staying alive. This is the case when rusts parasitize the leaves of living plants. In other cases, the fungus kills the host and absorbs the remnants. This is the case when the honey fungus (Armillaria) or root rot (Heterobasidion) kills a tree, or when a Cordyceps devours an insect.” In writing such descriptions, Petersen seems to be following Richard Feynman’s belief that every scientific truth can be expressed in simple language.

In addition to commonly described and no less commonly illustrated species, The Kingdom of Fungi includes species that you might otherwise find only in scientific papers or in the abysms of the internet. In other words, Petersen’s guide (and, to some extent, it is a guidebook) is the very opposite of a Peterson guide. The 18 images of corticioid species will be a revelation to anyone who’s denigrated corticioids by saying that they all look alike. There are 8 beguiling images of rusts and smuts. And there is one image of Amanita groenlandica. This last species, which can only be found in the Arctic, is mycorrhizal with dwarf birch, so Petersen has dwarf birch leaves in his photograph. Indeed, most of the photographs include the substrate of a species, for without a substrate a fungus would not exist.

Petersen is a professional mycologist and one of the creators of the internet synoptic key for fungal identification called Mycokey. I asked him what inspired him to do a book so seemingly different from what he had done in the past. He said: “I’ve always thought that people needed a broader scope than just which fungi are edible and which are poisonous. Back in 1995, I wrote a university textbook that put amateurs to sleep very fast. I wanted to put together a book that told the story of fungal life in an easy way ... a way that didn’t scare people off. Thus The Kingdom of Fungi.” To which I told him: “You’ve accomplished that task better in your book than any other book I know.”

In case you haven’t noticed it, this is a rave review. At only $29.95, The Kingdom of Fungi is eminently affordable, so you should go out and buy a copy, no, buy two copies, one for yourself and another for a would-be mycophile of your acquaintance.

— Review by Lawrence Millman
— Originally published in Fungi