Reviews

For fans of fungi – The magic of mushrooms

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The Magic of Mushrooms: Fungi in folklore, superstition and traditional medicine, Sandra Lawrence, 2022. Welbeck, in partnership with RBG Kew.

How much do you know about fungi? It doesn’t really matter how much you know because I bet you’ll know an awful lot more about this mysterious kingdom after reading The Magic of Mushrooms by Sandra Lawrence [which book is here appraised].

Technical stuff

A single page Introduction begins the book before 10 chapters – occupying approx. 190 pages – deliver the main text of the tome. And with such titles as: Fairy rings, The cunning woman’s stillroom, The dark mirror: the grim side of fungi, and Flying high, you’ll get a sense of the book’s particular take on fungi. The magic of mushrooms is abundantly illustrated – mainly in colour but also in black-and-white – the great majority of which are sourced from the Library, and Archives collection of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew [and by abundant I mean one illustration on at least every other page]. Throughout, Lawrence doesn’t shy away from using scientific names – not least because of the confusion about fungal identification from common names. The book ends with a Bibliography (approx. 1.33 pages) [featuring Lawrence’s useful notes about each of the publications cited], and 6 pages of 3-columned Index. Convinced that you can get a good flavour of a book from its Index, I trust this selection of entries should whet your appetite: aphrodisiacs, apricot jelly, bioluminescence, Raymond Briggs, Caesar’s mushroom, Chernobyl, crime fiction, Doctor Who, “evil fungi”, Antoni Gaudi, hallucinogens, King Alfred’s cakes, lichen dyes, Mary Rose, mushroom murders, Beatrix Potter, radiotropic fungi, shivering madness, Terracotta Army, Tree of life, witches’ ointment, zombie ant fungus, and Zoroastrianism.

What the book doesn’t, and does, do…

Whilst “This book does not set out to explain fungus in a scientific way” (p. 7), because “There are already many volumes that do that much better than I could ever hope to”, Chapter 2 – How mushrooms work – gives a pretty good dose of fungal biology [and highlights those multi-kingdom curiosities known as lichens]. But, for those who’d like to delve into that more scientific side of things, the author has listed a few of her favourites in the bibliography. The Magic of Mushrooms is also not “intended as an identification or field guide” (p. 7) [which, along with the disclaimer on p. 2, should protect the author and publisher from legal claims by any of the book’s users who might suffer harm, etc. from eating or using fungi in other ways based upon what they’ve read in The Magic of Mushrooms…].

To encompass all of the ways in which fungi interact with human lives would make for a huge book – much, much longer than the 200 or so pages of the book under review. Commendably, Lawrence has constrained her fungal fascination to present “a brief tour of the way fungi – and especially mushrooms – have infiltrated human existence” (p. 7). Accordingly, “It traces a history of mythology and legend, superstition and suspicion, runs a thread through (a few of) the manifold uses of fungi in traditional medicines of the world and begins to look at how some of these practices are being investigated today” (p. 7). Or, in other words, the book’s scope is as clearly indicated by its sub-title, Fungi in folklore, superstition and traditional medicine.* In that latter respect The Magic of Mushrooms has a similar approach to a title in publisher Reaktion’s Botanical series.

Personal overview of book

Having read many ‘proper’ plant books in recent months, and appraised them for the Botany One site, it was a welcome change to read one about fungi. Not that there’s anything wrong in books about plants – far from it! It’s just good to be reminded that there are other groups of organisms out there that are worth writing – and reading – about. Especially if they can be viewed as ‘honorary plants’, as I consider fungi to be. Reading The Magic of Mushrooms was therefore a pleasant change, and not just because it is well-written [the book is very well-written with wit and some really elegant phrasing]. Shunning the fungal biology textbook approach, it concentrates on fungal-people interactions. As a result, it’s a wonderful collection of fabulous and fungal-fact-filled (but see the reservation below) stories to entertain and enthral readers. It also has great potential to educate all who read it [e.g., although potato blight is included, Lawrence acknowledges that it is no longer considered a fungus] (but see My main reservation... below).

The book is a very good mix of the general and the specific; general comments about fungal-people interactions, and specific details about particular fungi in the numerous ‘biographies’ of individual species. Fungi showcased separately in that way include: truffles, porcini, common stinkhorn, deadly dapperling, ergot [a whopping 6 pages!], amethyst deceiver, noble rot, dry rot, and magic mushrooms [surely, the association one is supposed to make from the book’s main title?]. The Magic of Mushrooms should certainly make you look at fungi a little differently after reading it, and you’ll learn a lot about fungi and people.

My main reservation…

The Magic of Mushrooms contains loads of fungal facts, which is great. However, none of those statements are sourced: There are no indications in-text of where any of the facts came from. Yes, there is a bibliography, but that begins with the words “Trying to list all the books, articles and papers consulted for The Magic of Mushrooms would be impossible in a short space like this” (p. 200). That statement is enough to make the heart of any who seek source-stated, evidence-based, factual botanical books sink. And such a deficiency isn’t really salvaged by “but here is a selection of the works that I found most consistently useful” (p. 200). Questions: Is this assessment too critical? Does it matter that one can’t tie down particular facts to sources? Answers: No, and yes (respectively).

In the absence of any declaration in the book as to its intended readership,** I have assumed a general audience that is interested in knowing (more) about fungi and people interactions. I also like to think that such a readership will be appropriately sceptical and will therefore appreciate a book that provides them with reliable, evidence-based facts. And just because a book about fungi is declared as not being scientific doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be evidence-based; all factual accounts should be, and explicit links made between source(s) and statements. Irritatingly (I really would like to be able to say more supportive things about this charming book), it’s impossible to say how factual (m)any of the statements are on the basis of the book alone. Making explicit the connection between statement and source would go a long way to educating the public about fungi (and do its bit to reduce fungal blindness (Nicholas Talbot, Nature Plants 6: 1068–1069, 2020;)). Specifically, the lack of linkage between statements and sources in The Magic of Mushrooms feels like an educational opportunity missed [even if one has to accept that several of the books Lawrence lists in the Bibliography are at best secondary sources of information]. More generally, we really must have that long-overdue debate about the need – and how – to state one’s sources in factual books about fungi (and plants).

Summary

The Magic of Mushrooms by Sandra Lawrence is a great little book that’s beautifully illustrated and written. Full of fascinating information about fungi in folklore, superstition and traditional medicine (and more!), you’re guaranteed to find out something you didn’t know about these marvellous organisms, and their interactions with people [but, you’ll have to do your own fungal-fact-checking before you share those insights with others]. And, having been so impressed with what Lawrence has done here with fungi, I feel confident enough to recommend her previous plant book – Witch’s Garden – as well, and that’s without having had sight of it(!)

* Intriguingly, the marketing blurb that accompanied my review copy of the book states that its sub-title is Fungi in folklore, science and the occult. I’m curious to know why the change – to Fungi in folklore, superstition and traditional medicine – was made. Was removal of the word ‘science’ an acknowledgment of the author’s declaration that the book does not set out to explain fungus in a scientific way..?

** Apart from the very specific, if more than a little curious, “Suggested Age: 22 Years and Up” on the Target web site in relation to the book…

Translations by Google Translate.

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