Springtime foraging tends to consist largely of enjoying the various green plants that emerge from the wintry undergrowth. So it was with great surprise that while walking in early May I came across a cluster of large white mushrooms on a grassy verge.
It was then I remembered that the previous week had seen the arrival of St George’s Day, and that these must surely be the highly prized St George’s Mushroom (Calocybe gambosa). While mushrooms tend to be more of a late Summer/Autumn phenomenon, there are a few species that do emerge in the Spring, notably the morels and the aptly titled St George’s mushroom, which does indeed make its first appearance around St George’s Day (23rd April) persisting throughout May, sometimes into early June.
St George’s Mushroom is fairly common, but this is the first year that I have found it. As with any fungi, but particularly those I have discovered for the first time, I tend to gauge their risk based upon how easy it is to confuse them with a poisonous lookalike and, should that confusion take place, how serious the results will be. It is one thing to mistake a Field Mushroom (Agaricus campestris) for a Yellow Stainer (Agaricus xanthodermus) and suffer an unpleasant 24 hours or so on the toilet, but another to mistake a Velvet Shank (Flammulina velutipes) for a Funeral Bell (Galerina marginata) and end up very dead.
So I’m pleased to say that there is no real lookalike for St George’s Mushroom with which you are likely to mistake it in late April or early May. HOWEVER, the natural world throws up anomalies, and it is not simply enough to go by season to guide identification, weird things can and do happen and fungi of the summer months might just happen to emerge early. One possible candidate for this is the Deadly Fibrecap (Inocybe erubescens). As its name suggests, eating this species can be fatal as it contains muscarine, which causes excessive production of urine, tears, sweat, saliva as well as vomiting and diarrhoea. The risk of death comes from slowing the heart and constricting the lungs, though this wears off in 6 to 24 hours, and is treatable provided you get medical help. The good news is that it is the young specimens that really cause identification mix ups, as they can look like young button field mushrooms or young St George’s Mushrooms. This is because all of the above have white to cream coloured caps when young. As the deadly fibrecap matures the fibres radiating from the raised conical centre of the cap to the edge become more evident and these fibres also start to redden. The gills become dark brown as the spores mature.You can see younger (left) and older (right) Deadly Fibrecaps below:
The Deadly Fibrecap favours woods, whereas St George’s Mushroom grows in grassland (usually old pasture, lawns and grassy verges, where it occurs in groups or rings) but a grassy woodland edge may see an overlap in habitats.
St George’s mushroom is white throughout – gills, cap and stem, with cap measuring between 4-12cm across. Older specimens may become more brownish in the centre of the convex cap, which often also becomes cracked. The stem is usually quite thick, and the gills crowded (i.e. there are lots of them, closelyspaced) and they suddenly narrow before attaching to the stem.
The precise description of this gill arrangement is emarginate- as shown in the diagram below.
You can also see from below that the cap is inrolled. A main distinguishing feature is the strong smell of fresh meal – this wasn’t that useful a feature for me as I don’t really know what fresh meal smells like, suffice to say they do have a strong, distinctive mushroomy/floury smell. If you are really worried, take a spore print – St George’s Mushroom spores are white to cream, while the Deadly Fibrecap’s spores are brown. However, if you a picking mature specimens the white gills mean you can be sure they are not Deadly Fibrecaps.
I really enjoyed the flavour of these mushrooms – firm and nutty, proving delicious fried in oil and garlic. They formed a perfect accompaniment to my vegan-friendly breakfast, using vegan bacon and sausages, Whole Earth baked beans and wilted spinach with grated ginger and tamari soy sauce – a delicious recipe I picked up from Raw Food Rosie’s.
Speaking of which, St George’s Mushroom can also be eaten raw- so the next time I pick some I’ll try them in a salad of foraged greens! Go out now and see if you can find some.