The idea of magic mushrooms has taken on a new meaning this year – fungi have pulled off the most convincing vanishing trick ever.
Experts are declaring this to be the most fungi-free season anyone can remember…
Pickers of edible mushrooms across the West country have been returning from collecting trips with their baskets empty and even clued-up fungus collectors who search for obscure non-edible fruiting bodies of these weird life-forms have been drawing a complete blank.
It's official – 2012 will go down in fungi history as the year of the big no-show.
"Everybody around here is bemoaning the lack of fungi so far this season," says the librarian of the British Mycological Society, Gill Butterfill.
She went on to tell the Western Daily Press: "There are all kinds of theories – rain, lack of rain, rain at the wrong time, temperature not appropriate, etc…
"But apparently nobody knows why. The editors of 'Field Mycology' have been in here today (to the society's headquarters at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew) – they are equally disappointed and mystified.
"The only hope is that favourable circumstances might allow a later flush, so cross your fingers."
Her thoughts were being echoed by Jeff Benn, chairman of the Devon Fungus Group: "That is absolutely right – things have been pretty grim," he told me. "The weather must have something to do with it – there's no fruit on trees either – so I do think it's to do with climate. Trees respond to a threat like drought, and I believe fungi do too."
As Western Daily Press walks writer, I too can report that this is the most mushroom-less season I have seen in 12 years of hiking in the region. I know of sites in my Exmoor valley that have never failed to produce field mushrooms during July and August in 50 years – and not a single sample have I found during the barren months of summer 2012.
Mr Benn says it is not a guaranteed rule that fungi should appear: "Fungi are always at work – they don't always produce their means of reproduction."
The things we see in the woods and fields – and either eat or avoid – are merely the fruiting bodies of fungi, but their long thread-like "roots" called mycelium will be alive and kicking underground nevertheless.
"Many fungi get their sugars from trees – and if the tree is doing all right, they are doing all right," says Mr Benn. "The mushroom you see merely represents the sexual reproduction of a fungus. Actually, many species have an asexual way of reproducing."
These would include the less than welcome fungi such as phytophthora which kills trees like larch – it apparently has one sexual reproductive system and no fewer than three asexual ways of reproducing. But before wild-mushroom risotto lovers like me begin abandoning our recipes, there could be hope around the corner.
"Things may start happening if conditions turn around," says Mr Benn who lives near Tiverton, in Mid Devon. "I did have a foray locally this week where we actually clocked up 27 species in an hour – but it was in a very damp area. And I have noticed things cropping up in lawns."
Nigel Pinhorn, who leads fungi-forays in Devon, says he's also beginning to find signs of mushroom magic…
"At Ashclyst Forest there were fungi this week and I found some field mushrooms in a local cemetery. Because we had a dry August and September it will have affected things – it usually takes three weeks to get going.
"We will see them, I am confident," declared Mr Pinhorn. "During the last few years my forays have peaked in November and early December, so the season is shifting to occur later."
To find out more about Mr Pinhorn's fungi-forays visit www.devonnaturewalks.co.uk