The Secret Life of Fungi by Aliya Whiteley

3.5 out of 5 stars

A copy of this was provided free of charge from the publisher in return for an honest review.

The biggest single living thing on earth is not a blue whale or a redwood tree, rather it is a simple fungus. I say simple, this particular specimen of honey fungus is huge, mind-boggling huge. It is the Malheur National Forest in the state of Oregon. It was found because it was killing trees in this forest and when the DNA was taken from trees around 2.4 miles apart, it was found to have the same DNA. Overall it was calculated to be 3.7 square miles and the guesses at its age vary between 1,900 – 8650 years old.

They are some of the strangest living things that we have found so far on the planet. Bizarre is only part of it. They live all around us and sometimes even on us. They can work in harmony with the natural world or their mycelium can suffocate the life from its host. Those looking for a high, can try and source magic mushrooms, but where they choose to grow makes them less than appealing. They can be a wonderful source of food, from the ubiquitous button mushroom to the very hard to find, but exquisite truffle. They have even named one, the porcini, after me…

Aliya Whiteley is one of those with a fascination, or to be more honest, an obsession with all types of fungi. It began in her childhood trying to take pictures on her camera on the ones she found on Darkmoor that always ended up a little out of focus when the film came back from the chemist. These specimens though were just the visible part, to learn more about them she would have to delve much deeper. Looking through the guide books she found that some of the names given to them were quite wonderful, who would not want to find a fairy sparkler? Others names though have a much more sinister vibe, who can fail to have a chill run down their neck at the thought of a death cap.

All fungi are edible. Some fungi are only edible once.” – Terry Pratchett

Whiteley has packed this book with hundreds of facts about fungi, you can learn which species ejects its spores at 20,000g, which mushrooms the mummy that emerged from the ide in the Alps was carrying, which species she found a carpet of yellow mushrooms in a woodland walk on the way home from a club and which fungi that have the names Toxic Ooze and Clint Yeastwood. I rather liked this. It is not supposed to be a rigorous study, rather, Whiteley’s writing is fun to read as you follow her looping connections of all things mushroomy. It doesn’t read like a science paper either, her attention to detail is a countered with a dry sense of fun and lots of anecdotes of her fungi forays.

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  1. Liz Dexter

    I’m not sure about all these undergroundy books that are around and the idea of the massive one creeps me out a bit, to be honest! An interesting subject for many, though.

    • Paul

      There are a few around at the moment. I am not sure that mycelium is related to anything else on this planet!

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