A deadley harvest

rye grass disease
rye grass disease

The leaves of autumn are colouring up nicely now – but this is by no means the end of their value.

They become a food source for a plethora of fungi which are at their peak just at the moment during the wet and mild October days. Here at Yorkshire Water’s Tophill Low Nature Reserve there are nearly 300 species which have so far been identified. Working out the differences between species takes a lot of skill and sometimes some very specialist facilities, our volunteers often consulting national experts and their labs to determine fine details through chemical reactions and microscopic spore analysis. We are often asked ‘which species are safe to eat?’; and our answer is always ‘we wouldn’t!’. Some species like the deadly destroying angel are easily confusable with field mushrooms, with even experts being caught out, such as the case with two recent fatalities in Australia. One recent species we discovered growing at the Reserve was ergot, a fungus which causes a deformity or ‘gall’ in its host plant of rye grass. The insignificant looking black pods can be deadly, with ergot poisoning cropping up regularly through history on cereal crops. Stories like the norse Beowulf tale and the Salem witch trials have all been linked with ergot, and the ancient greeks used it in the hallucinogenic drink kykeon, before it was synthesised into LSD by Albert Hoffman in 1938. One unfortunate side effect is the poisoning and death it causes, known as ‘St. Anthony’s Fire’ after the monastic order who used to treat its victims. Convulsions and constriction of blood vessels leading to gangrene and limb loss are but one additional aspect. Interestingly our ergot was also in turn infected with another fungi Gibberella gordonii turning it purple showing the delicate links in nature.

In recent years many celebrity chef programmes advocate foraying for these wild treats, which in some cases has led to mass collecting which is being considered a threat to many species, as when the fruiting bodies are repeatedly picked the fungi cannot reproduce. Our advice? Best to enjoy their beauty and stick to the supermarket aisle…

Tophill Low Nature Reserve is located 4 miles from the A164 at Watton and is open daily from 9am to 6pm. Admission £2.80 adults and £1.20 concessions. Sorry no dogs. For more information visit www.tophilllow.blogspot.com.