CA Mushrooms
CA Mushrooms

Book Review

Mushrooms: A Natural and Cultural History

By Nicholas P. Money
2017, Reaktion Books, London
200 pages, Hardback
ISBN-10: 178023743X
ISBN-13: 978-1780237435
93 illustrations, 67 in color
£18.99 from the publisher,
$24.76 elsewhere

Mushrooms are loved, despised, feared and misunderstood. They have been a familiar part of nature throughout human history and occupy a special place in our consciousness. …A mushroom is not a self-contained organism, like a jellyfish, for example. It is a reproductive organ produced by a colony, or mycelium which grows in soil or rotting wood. …This book introduces the mythology and science of the spectacular array of fungi that produce mushrooms, the history of our interactions with these curious and beautiful organisms, and the ways that humans use mushrooms as food, medicine and recreational drugs.” So opens Mushrooms: A Natural and Cultural History, a brand new book by Nicholas P. Money. Money is Professor of Botany and Western Program Director at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He is the author of many popular mycological books, including two of the best ever written on the topic: Mr. Bloomfield’s Orchard: The Mysterious World of Mushrooms, Molds, and Mycologists (2002) and The Triumph of the Fungi (2007).

Money has been on a roll of late, churning out many titles just in the past few years. Nothing of late, however, has lived up to the quality of his earlier works. His most recent efforts seem to be ever more brief, and reiterating much of the same information. The Amoeba in the Room: Lives of the Microbes (2014) kept my attention for its 200 pages, Mushroom (2011) came in well under 200 pages, and he’s had a pair of Very Short Introductions (a series from Oxford University Press) one on mycology, the other on microbiology, both under 100 pages. He even published a novella, The Mycologist (2017), a pleasant (if predictable) fictional tale. (The Ohio history woven into the story was very nice and almost offset the awkward, cringe-worthy sex scene.)

I found Mushrooms: A Natural and Cultural History to be pretty much a retread of his 2011 Mushroom, albeit with larger images but briefer text. The topics covered are mostly the same, the images (mostly from public domain) are similar to those of the earlier title: Old World paintings, with some photographs of mushrooms in the field. The images are better, but several of the photographs are mislabeled (e. g. Gyromitra esculenta on page 51 is another species; Volvariella volvacea on page 126 is certainly V. bombycina; the “black morel, Morchella conica” on page 128 is clearly M. semilibera [=M. punctipes]).

Money also makes some unfounded, in my opinion, claims. On page 90 “Relatively little attention has been given to women scientists who have shaped the study of mycology.” Although a quick search online will turn up several titles devoted to the topic, it seems like a hollow complaint coming from an author who’s written a book on mycological history—which has next to nothing in it about women mycologists. Tsk. On page 92 he discusses how matsutake mushrooms act as partners with their tree hosts, for a period of time then become pathogenic, and finally feeding off their host’s killed roots. I’ve never heard that claim before, nor seen any evidence of it in nature. (It’s fair to say you won’t see any matsutake within a day’s drive of the Miami U campus where Money teaches, so maybe he has some other mushroom in mind.) If only there were other sources of information on Tricholomas to turn to… Another, odd complaint: “There is no accessible comprehensive book on mycorrhizas…” This could not be further from the truth, as there are many and more continue to be published annually—many of them reviewed here in the pages of FUNGI. I also had some quibbles about his discussion of mushroom parasites; the author seems to be interchanging “mushroom” and “fungus” and states that most are saprotrophs. Actually, most are probably parasites. (Indeed if you consider all species—any kingdom— have parasites and every unique species has at least one, and surely more than one, unique parasite, you quickly conclude most species on Earth are parasites.) Maybe he meant mushroomproducing fungi. But then in the same paragraph he discusses mushrooms that are pathogens of humans; few if any fungi that are human pathogens are mushroom producers (save rare cases of mycosis caused by Schizophyllum). Next come the mushrooms that parasitize other mushrooms, e. g. Asterophora (it’s actually a saprobe of rotting mushrooms). When speaking of mushroom toxins, specifically amatoxins, Money repeats the almost baseless claim that Conocybe species produce amatoxins (this is based on a single citation that most likely was erroneous).

It’s no secret that Money idolizes the great mycologist AHR Buller (1874- 1944). Money has devoted many pages to Buller over the years. The lionization has now earned Buller a moniker, to wit: “His influence on the study of fungi is so important that he has been called ‘the Einstein of mycology.’” That’s according to Money, who began calling Buller that a few years ago. I’ve seen “Einstein” used nowhere else other than in publications by Money. But who knows, maybe it will catch on.

Mushrooms: A Natural and Cultural History wouldn’t be complete without the favorite three dead horses that Money likes to beat (organized forays, cultivated mushrooms, and hallucinogenic fungi). The author rails against mycophiles—his very fan base— for their very destructive habit (in his eyes) of holding educational forays where wild mushrooms are collected and brought to a display table, only to then be thrown into the compost bin at the event’s end. Still more objects of his ire are cultivated mushrooms. Seemingly all of them. “The popular cultivated mushrooms do not taste very strongly of anything…” They “have less taste than wet paper,” range “from dullness to unpleasantness,” and so forth. Of course, anyone that knows mushrooms, knows this can be true when they’re not fresh. The same could be said of any vegetable or piece of fruit. Freshly harvested cultivated mushrooms are wonderful and I invite the author to try them. There is a reason so many people have gone to so much trouble to grow them for centuries. But the misperceptions don’t end there, they continue with how little nutrition they afford. “One could obtain greater sustenance by licking a postage stamp” [than from eating mushrooms]. He actually states this on page 135. This is far from the truth and there are several books to turn to for the facts on the nutrition of mushrooms and other fungi (a good one is Food and Beverage Mycology, second edition by L. R. Beuchat, 1987). And finally there are the hallucinogens. I don’t know why the author always feels compelled to discuss (albeit barely) this topic. He begins with “This mycological topic is approached with some misgiving by the author…” Why? If you have no interest in, or knowledge of, a topic—any topic—you need not be compelled to mention it for the sake of mentioning.

Mushrooms: A Natural and Cultural History is part of a large series by Reaktion Books (London). I’m not entirely sure who their audience is, as the books are very short on content (maybe aimed at readers short on time or attention spans?). Another title by Reaktion, Mushrooms, A Global History has next to no information whatsoever about mushrooms.

If you have no other books on mycology or mushrooms and want a starting point, Mushrooms: A Natural and Cultural History might be for you. The author’s writing style is engaging, humorous at times, and for general audiences. The book could easily be read in a single morning over a couple of cups of coffee (as I did). If you have other mycological overviews under your belt, you will not likely find anything new with this book.

— Review by Britt Bunyard
— Originally published in Fungi