Sunday, 13 November 2011

You can eat any mushroom once!

Monsieur Gouny, our neighbour, looked at my small basket of mushrooms and he said ‘Ce sont les rosés?’ – they are the field mushrooms? – rosés des prés’ ?   ‘Oh no they are not’, I replied in French.  I illustrate some here as they were growing. They look like mushrooms but anyone who ate them would soon be writhing with a highly disturbed stomach. 
I have many textbooks on mushrooms and toadstools and that on the mushrooms lists over seventy species.  Of toadstools as a general group, there are thousands in Europe.
The mushrooms, collectively placed in the genus Agaricus all have spores which begin pink but which turn to a deep dark purple to black as they ripen.  The so-called gills which carry the spores change colour as the spores change colour.  Agaricus mushrooms all have a fleshy ring on the stem but the stem in otherwise bare and has no enveloping sac at its base (unlike the various deadly poisonous Amanitas).
The numerous true mushrooms all look very similar.  So, how do you tell them apart?
Well the ones I collected make the answer very difficult. 
These were Agaricus xanthodermus, the so-called ‘yellow-stainer’.  I fear that almost all  living things come in a variety of forms and the species of mushrooms are no exception.   If you read the books they will tell you that the ‘yellow-stainer’ has two marked characteristics.  Firstly, that the flesh in the base of the stem when cut, turns chrome-yellow, and that the broken flesh has a smell of ink.  It so happens that mine have no smell at all, and the colour change is extremely slight.
I illustrate a specimen which is shows a little yellow in the base – good specimens would be brilliantly yellow.
So it is necessary to look for other signs which are less obvious.  The shape of the cap helps.  This is not a smooth even dome.  When young it has a more rectangular section.  The sides tend to be almost vertical and the top is more flat. [The one marked Y shows this shape.] Then if you cut the specimen in half, the young gills are exceedingly pale pink.  Lastly look to where the mushrooms are growing.  Agaricus xanthodermus does not normally, if ever, grow far away from trees, whilst the ‘rosé des prés’  is found in the open pastures.   The yellow stainer is probably growing around the roots of the trees and in fact helping the tree to obtain minerals from the soil.  It is also itself in return obtaining carbohydrates from the trees.  So beware of mushrooms which look like mushrooms growing under trees! The field mushroom is obtaining nutrients from decomposing organic matter, possibly old horse dung.
Above all remember that the best mushrooms have a red tinge to their flesh and will colour any water in which they are placed a pale pinky-red.  The yellow stainer will never do that.  All mushrooms can be placed either into the group of red stainers or the group of yellow stainers – which bruise yellowish,

Bimonthly Weather Report 2011 September October

These two months were appreciably drier and warmer than in 2010.  That only 9 mm rain fell in September was remarkable.  The ground became too hard and dry to work.  Farmers are not able to find enough hay for their animals. By mid October there was no water left in the garden cistern.  But on the 24th the situation was saved by heavy rain.
The Cranes flew south on the 16th and 17th of October, a little late for them.
Ground frosts occurred on the 20-21 October which seemed to suggest that winter was imminent, but it was a false alarm, and at the end of the month summer temperatures had returned. 
The walnut crop was poor with very small nuts falling.  The Hazel tree yielded nothing at all.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Weather report - July -August 2011

Bimonthly Weather Report
These two months were considerably more wet than in 2010.  The rainfall totalled 35 mms last year  and it was 125 mm this year.  This at least restored the balance of the drought in the first half of 2011.
Unfortunately the vegetables suffered well before July commenced and although it has been possible to get some beans planted and crop, some crops have been totally futile. The parsnips totally failed to germinate and there was no attempt to plant a third time in July.  
As I reported for May-June, the hay crop was appallingly poor. 
Nevertheless some fruit crops have done quite well.  There were quite a few plums and the walnut and chestnut trees will probably produce good crops.  In an entry on this blog I have commented on the fruiting of the True Service trees (Sorbus domestica).  Their  fruit crops are immense and  branches are breaking under the load.  Such also happened with apples and plums.  
Partridges  have been scuttling around as the car approaches along the lanes. But not immediately near the house.  The odd hare scampers across the field as I write this piece and we see small family groups of roe deer on some mornings from the bedroom window.
But it seems to me that insects generally have not been as prolific as usual.  There have been very few sightings of the horse fly [I seem to think - none!]with large green eyes (Philipomya graeca).   The Silver Washed Fritillary butterfly  has hardly had a sighting, yet in previous years we normally see several at once trapped indoors and trying to get out of the windows.  There has not been the usual numbers of Marbled White butterflies. Small flies of the house-fly type appear to have been less abundant.
There was a fairly good cropping of  fungi at the end of July some days after a downpour of rain, but it was not repeated after the 26 mms of rain on the 26th August.
A few Cesar’s mushrooms were seen in July.  No cèpes! 
Towards the end of August a few Autumn Ladies Tresses (Spiranthes spiralis – an orchid) have appeared on the pasture and I have noticed that some other flowers are flowering quite well at this time – Sickle leaved hare’s ear is fairly abundant in its accustomed location and the yellow Odontites is quite luxuriant.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

The True Service Tree or Cormier

Wild Plants of France 5.

This beautiful tree, laden with golden fruits is growing at the far side of my daughter’s field.  The locals know it as the Cormier.  In England it is named in books as the true service tree.  But few people will recognise it.
Once it was thought to be extinct in England.  When I was young it was thought that there was just one tree growing in the Wyre Forest near Kidderminster in central England.  There, that single tree was known as the ‘whitty pear’.
Some time in the 1960’s I happened to read the work of Nennius (in translation) of the Wonders of Britain.  Nennius was a monk who lived around the year 800 in North Wales.  He gathered together all kinds of scraps of information.  I was trying to get to grips with the stories surrounding King Arthur whom Nennius mentions.
He wrote in latin ‘Juxta flumen quod vocatur Guoy, poma inveniuntur super fraxinum in proclivo saltus qui est prope ostio fluminis’.    And this is translated as:
‘Next to the river Wye apples spring from an ash tree on a slope by the river estuary.’
I happened to be living fairly near the Wye  at the time.
A friend of mine, a botanist, happened to be wandering around  the district and  he found on the banks of the Severn very close to where the Wye joins that larger river,  amongst some scrubby and neglected patches of trees specimens of this same tree.
It could not be better described as looking like an ash tree bearing small apples.
These must be descended from the same tree or trees that Nennius describes.
The leaves resemble much those of the rowan tree or mountain ash to which it is in fact related.
The fruits are, unless ripe to the point of rotting very bitter.  They almost take the lining off the teeth. Yet the Latin name Sorbus domestica reflects a culinary use.  It is claimed that they were fermented to make a form of cider.   
The wood is fine grained and excellent for carving. But generally the trees end up as firelogs. In this district of south-central France the tree is quite common growing on the edge of the abundant woods of pubescent oak. Most are felled in the recurrent process of cutting timber for firewood. There are few around as old as this specimen, though the tree is said to live to 600 years and more.   This one is perhaps towards a hundred years. 

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Mushrooms make the French ill.

August 9 2011.    In the past three weeks, 94 mms (nearly four inches) of rain has fallen.  After the heat and drought of the previous months, this has resulted in a flush of toadstools of many species.  Many of the French who retain a strong folk memory of starvation on a diet of  snails, thrushes and toadstools, take advantage of this glut and invade the countryside to collect and eat.  Unfortunately for them, the folk memory does not tell them the difference between the edible and the toxic.
Within the past two weeks the Centre of  Toxicology  at Toulouse has had a flood of inquiries on toadstool poisoning.  Eight people were hospitalised at Cahors, four at St. Céré, two at Figeac.  Village pharmacists all have a training in toadstool recognition,  but few are thoroughly knowledgeable.
The local paper says that the usual culprit was the Satan's mushroom.   What they should have eaten were the cepes.

To the left is the Satan.
It has a pale top about the size of a large dinner plate.The stem is fat and mostly red and the flesh is a bright yellow which changes to blue when cut. The pores below the cap are bright red.
The  cepe is on the right.   They can also be large, though usually a little smaller than the Satan. It is a brown colour. The pores begin white and turn to dirty yellow as they age.  The stem is also a pale brown and the flesh is white and hardly changes when it is cut.  The stem also has a net like pattern on it.   I add that the stem of Satan's toadstool also has a net on it, though in that case the net is whitish yellow on a reddish background.
A basket of cepes
It is almost impossible for anyone but a total innocent to mistake the two.  I suspect that the newspaper journalists don't know the cepe from the others either!  The unfortunate people probably ate something else. 
One can quite easily make mistakes of identification with other genera of toadstools, but anyone who is not certain should never eat any toadstool.
The cepes fetch large prices at the markets - ten euros a kilo is not exceptional.  They are not worth it.  Always, I guarantee it,  if one shows a French person some toadstools in a wood or field, they ask "Can you eat it?".  I reply - "You can eat any toadstool once!"

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Weather May-June 2011

The drought continued. The hay crop was only 9 inches high.  There is a request for anyone with a hay field going to waste to help out the farmers. There are quite a few English, Dutch and Belgian  owners who do not use their fields.  Of course they just revert to woodland.  We allow the hay on our fields to be taken by our neighbouring farmer.   It keeps our view open and we get a good variety of pasture flowers.  The hay was cut just into July and yielded less than three bales.  Last year there were 13 bales.
The orchids this year were almost non-existent, because of the drought.
The rainwater cistern of 42 cubic metres capacity is almost dry.  We have not been able to water the plants since mid June.  Since my daughter Rachel is growing cut flowers for sale, this is a serious matter.
During the first week of May we had the 'Vent d'Autan'.  This is a powerful wind from the South East, rather like the Mistral in Provence.  Fortunately it is not a frequent occurrence (unlike the Mistral, which can spoil any holiday in Provence!). It can be caused either by cyclonic conditions over Spain or anticyclonic weather over mid France. The wind is funnelled from Narbonne to Toulouse and then up through the departément of the Lot.
A hare seems to have made itself at home near to the house.  If one approaches, it hunkers down and pretends that you cannot see it.  If you get about six feet away it then takes off.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Bimonthly Weather Report March April 2011

March began cold.  The beautiful early flowering St. John's Plum tree did not flower until March 8th.  This wild tree whose fruit in midsummer makes the most excellent jam is often in flower in February (19th February in 2008).
Other flowers were also late - daffodils 14th March, celandines 18 March.  These dates represent a fairly full flowering.  
Our last ground frost was March 20th.
The cuckoo was heard on March 16th.
But then at the very end of March the temperatures rose significantly.
Summer temperatures came in the first week of April. 
the first Orchis morio was seen on April 3rd.
The 6th April we saw the butterflies -Scarce Swallowtail and Orange tip.
The hoopoe was heard on April 1st.  The nightingale on April 25th. It was a few days earlier heard at Lavercantière about 10 km away.
But April saw the beginning of a drought.  Only 4 mm. of rain fell in the month.
It was the driest and warmest April in the last few years.  
April 2010 rainfall was 13 max temp. 19.6 ; in 2009 -168 mm. and 16.2 degrees.
Our rainwater reservoir is in full use for watering the flower crop and our vegetables.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Bimonthly Weather Report

January was decidedly warmer than those of 2009 and 2010.
Min temps. in order 2.06, 0.58, and this year 2.87
Max temps. 7.23, 4.46, and 8.23
February continued similarly
Min temps. 3.87, 1.93 and 4.14
Max temps. 10.08, 7.96, and 11.07
However the numbers of night frosts showed no trend.  2010 had more frosts.  In 2011 no snow fell in January/February.
The 1st Viola odorata  was in flower on the 1st January. The 1st snowdrop on the 16th January (as in 2009 and 2008)  I was glad to see the local wild snowdrops which I transplanted to the edge of our lower woodland produced 8 flowers on February 7th (3 in 2010 on February 19th).  It is always several degrees colder in the valley bottom.  
Celandines in flower on 28th February.
On the 25th February a skein  of about 50 Cranes flew North-East (1st March in 2010).  

Thursday, 6 January 2011

A Feather Beetle

Searching a sample of leaf litter which had accumulated in a ditch beneath oak trees, I found this odd little beast.
Its name takes up more room than the animal. It is less than one millimetre in length and you can only make out its structure with a microscope.
You cannot make out the details of the body because it is too opaque for the microscope. You may make out enough of the shape to see that it is an insect.
The remarkable structure is the great feathery excrescence at the end of the body. The books say that this represents  its wings. There are a large number of ‘cilia’ projecting from each side of the two central axes. These 'cilia' appear to be hollow. Each cilium has fine projections along the length.
What can be their function? I discover in a Russian journal [Zoologičeskij žurnal 2008, vol 87 pp 181-188] that A.A. Polilov has examined the structure of these beetles, but little more is known. He found that many internal organs are severely reduced (even allowing for the minute size). He says..(I quote) ..”The most important among them are the following: the absence of midgut muscles, reduction of two malpighian tubules (i.e. the nitrogenous excretory organs), the decrease in the number of abdominal stigmas (i.e. breathing pores), the strong reduction of the tracheal system (respiratory system), the absence of the heart, reduction of the circulatory system …”. He also lists reduction of the nervous system.
This information may help us to surmise what the function is. The ‘cilia’ appear to be hollow and empty.  It would seem unlikely that the cilia replace the excretory system. We know that the respiratory system of breathing pores and the air tubes (the tracheae) are reduced. Is it not likely that these ‘feathers’ are in fact the breathing system of this minute insect, and that gaseous exchange occurs across their relatively immense surface?
Then we might conjecture on the evolution of these creatures. Could it be that these ‘feathers’ are most effective under water? Is it that the beetles only live in waterlogged conditions or were their ancestors water living beetles?
It is said to be found in most regions of Europe and beyond into Asia.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Bimonthly Weather Report November-December 2010

November & December 2010
To view statistics click here. (The statistics for all 2010 are also viewable via the Index.)

Compared with 2009 the average temperatures for both months were about 2 degrees lower in 2010.   There was about 10 mm less of rain in both months than in 2009.
This in contrast to the feeling that one had that we had more snow in December 2010, but the total amount was not measured. It was nevertheless very likely so. Snow fell  on November 27th (5 cm), which seems to be unusual.

About six Lapwings were seen nearby on the 3rd of December, just after the first fall of snow from the 27th November to the 2nd December.  We have only seen Lapwings once before, also following a cold spell.  
Cranes were seen flying south on November 2nd and again on December 13th.  That makes three southerly passages of cranes this autumn. (The other was October 11th)