HHenry Jephson was walking in the countryside near Bristol during a Covid lockdown when his eye was drawn to the ghostly appearance of a lion’s mane mushroom, its shaggy fronds hanging from a tree trunk.
Jephson, head of research at Bristol Fungarium, knew he was studying something rare and special. An essential part of traditional Chinese medicine, lion’s mane is also native to the United Kingdom, but is under threat. The “absolutely enormous” specimen spotted by Jephson was the first to be seen in the southwest of England in eight years.
Little did he know then that the fungus would change the direction of Jephson’s work. He is currently working with Natural England and the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) to bring native fungi back to England’s forests. He helps run a mushroom farm, which has evolved from growing oyster and shiitake mushrooms for restaurants to curating native mushrooms and creating health supplements from them.
Lion’s mane is so rare that it is illegal to harvest it from the wild and should not be disturbed. Jephson was happy to admire it on his walks around the farm where he found it, delighted that it was thriving in the wild.
So one day he was shocked to find that the landowner had cut down his host tree. Speaking at the Real Farming Conference in Oxford, he said: “The fungus was crushed all over the ground in big, soggy chunks. And so we found ourselves in a bit of a unique situation because collecting them is illegal, we picked up a big piece of lion’s mane and took it back to the mushroom farm and started trying to get a clean crop out of it.
Jephson cloned the mushroom and maintains its cultivation on the farm. He also spoke to the landowner, who was unaware of the rare nature of the fungus, and he left the tree stump alone, on which a lion’s mane still grows.
This led the fungarium down the path of keeping native mushrooms alive. “It was the discovery of lion’s mane that really started us on the path to cloning rare mushrooms. And now people are contacting us wanting natural varieties.
“Natural England and RHS Wisley (have) slightly different plans and are using our varieties to experiment. Wisley is interested in insects that feed on mushrooms, so they grow our varieties on their site on logs in their garden to keep an eye out for any insects that come.
“Natural England has several strains of native fungi that they want to introduce into forests. They want to track how the spores move through forests, but also encourage rotting fungi deep down. It is therefore certain that fungi destroy different parts of trees, and we want, in order to encourage biodiversity, to have fungi that can decompose effectively.
Rare mushrooms aren’t just threatened by unwitting landowners and their axes: There are fears that spores from commercial farms could spread into the wild and affect native fungi.
“Mushroom growing is becoming more and more popular, which is great,” Jephson said, “but all these commercial strains coming in, all these spores being released into the environment, we just don’t know what they are. do to local populations. ecology.
“A few months ago I was talking to someone at a truffle festival and they said they found yellow oyster mushrooms. And this summer they started growing on a haystack. And yellow oysters are an exotic species. They’re just not endemic, it was in the middle of nowhere.
“She didn’t know if there was a mushroom farm nearby, but I bet there was one around there somewhere, or even a grow kit that someone had grown on a windowsill, and these yellow oyster spores found their way into the environment. , on a haystack.
Native wild mushrooms could be better for people’s health than commercial varieties, Jephson said: “Commercial varieties have been bred for their high yield and rapid growth. Our mushrooms are the opposite. They grow in ugly lumps. They grow incredibly slowly. They are really picky about the conditions. But they taste amazing, and our British strain of Lion’s Mane has been tested for its medicinal compounds, and the wild clone has 30% more. beta-glucans than commercial varieties.