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Country diary: the magic of magpie inkcaps

Paul Evans
·2-min read

“One for sorrow, two for joy” goes the old magpie rhyme, but these are not birds, these are mushrooms – Coprinopsis picacea, the magpie inkcap. There have been changes since the last time I walked this path between field and wood: a new wire fence erected, low-sweeping branches of an old oak lopped, debris and scrub cleared, pasture tidied and improved. In a patch where something has been disturbed under the fence is a cluster of amazing black and white fungi; fruiting bodies in various states of growth and decay. In this one patch, an egg pushes out of the ground; a dark bell-end with white feathery patches rises upwards on a stalk; at a foot tall, its cap rolls up and melts into a black inky gloop. “Three for a girl and four for a boy…”

The magpie inkcap is unusual and, although it is found in Britain and Ireland, throughout Europe and in North America, it’s rare to find such a strong group. Scientifically described in 1785 as Coprinus (an eater of dung) picacea that looks like Pica pica, the magpie – it was renamed Coprinopsis at the beginning of this century because of DNA differences with other Coprinus species such as shaggy inkcap.

Magpie inkcaps feed on tree and grass debris in woodland on calcareous soil; it is inedible and is said to have alarming poisonous effects. Despite this, it has also been found to contain chemicals that may have the potential to be antineurodegenerative and anti-cancer drugs. “Five for silver, six for gold…”

Although most of this fungus lives invisibly in the soil as a saprotrophic, gauzy network of filaments decomposing plant life, its fruiting bodies are outrageously exhibitionist. This phallic monochrome mushroom, much more animal than plant, is an enigma. Why is it so strikingly pied? Why so poisonous? Why so uncommon? And why does it turn into a substance that not only looks like ink but can be used as such, in a process called deliquescence, to carry its spores? The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins gave praise for “all things counter, original, spare, strange” in his poem Pied Beauty. The magpie inkcap is all these things. “Seven for a secret…”