The Literary Mushroom

The other day on my early morning walk, I came across mushrooms that had, no doubt, come to life with all the rain we have had. They are intriguing as one day I walk a field and there are none, and the next day they have sprung up overnight. Emily Dickinson captures this mystery with these simple lines:

Anne H Campbell 2017

“The mushroom is the elf of plants,

At evening it is not;

At morning in a truffled hut

It stops upon a spot”

Not only do they appear magically, but the variety seems endless. The mushroom I found yesterday is gone today, but another kind has emerged somewhere else.

How did mushrooms come to acquire such a name? Say “mushroom,” and the word seems to slosh around in your mouth, but eaten raw they are not mushy. According to several sources, our modern English word comes from the Middle English musseroun or muscheron, which in turn comes from Old French. The modern spelling dates from 1560. Mushrooms are also called toadstools. According to fairy tales and German folklore, toads would sit on mushrooms and catch flies with their tongues. Perhaps, there is some truth to those stories (assuming this picture is not photo shopped!)! By perching on them, toads made the mushrooms poisonous.

Because of their mysterious appearing, people thought mushrooms were evidence of dark forces at work such as witches or earthly vapors. They were often associated with faeries and elves, hence the fairy ring, where fairies came to dance and perch on mushrooms. However, people entered fairy rings at their own risk. They could become lame or blind or even kidnapped by the fairies to become their slaves. On the other hand, the Welsh believed  that it was good luck to build a house in a field where fairy rings appeared. Mushrooms also figured in folk remedies. They were used to treat boils and abscesses and in gargles for sore throats. The dried spores of puffballs were used to stop the bleeding of wounds and nosebleeds.

Anne H Campbell 2017

One of the mushrooms I came across, pictured here, is the Amanita muscaria. The white warts are the remnants of a veil that encloses the young mushroom. The Amanita is poisonous if you eat enough of them, and they are also hallucinogenic. One effect the user experiences is that objects appear larger or smaller than they actually are. There is speculation that Lewis Carroll had firsthand experience with this mushroom as the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland tells her that if she nibbles one side of a mushroom, it will make her taller, and if she partakes of the other side, it will make her shorter. This mushroom is also called the fly agaric. People in the Middle Ages discovered that if crushed in a saucer of milk, it would attract flies that would then become befuddled and drown.

References to mushrooms pop up in other literary works. Shakespeare, in keeping with folklore, refers to elves whose pastime “Is to make midnight mushrooms” (The Tempest). Fungal references rear their heads in the Harry Potter books. Ray Bradbury wrote a story about a menacing form of fungus. Mushrooms figure in murder mysteries, such as Sue Grafton’s I Is for Innocent. Finally, I encourage you to look up Sylvia Plath’s poem “Mushrooms,” two lines of which are “Our toes, our noses/Take hold on the loam.”

What other literary works do you know of that feature fungi? What other myths and legends are there about mushrooms and toadstools?

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