The other day I chanced upon a photo online of a mushroom called Lactarius indigo which, despite its specific ‘indigo,’ is pale blue. Blue happens to be one of my favourite colours (the other being green), and of course this fungus of what seemed an unlikely colour totally awed me. I would be over the moon to come across one such.
Incredibly just a couple of days later, I came upon some equally improbably coloured mushrooms. Not blue, but lilac! This was on the 10th of December, the second day of sun after two weeks of daily rain.
They grew in a cluster not far from the canopy of a tall pine. To my great delight, I found more in groups of twos and threes some distance around the olive trees. And today again I found another cluster where there had been no other fungi. These were not all uniformly pale violet — some were dark purple and others veered towards beige or grey or brown with a mauve-ish cast.
Now I know of only one kind of purple mushroom – wood blewits (pronounced blue’–ettes). In Castillian and French, they are known as ‘blue feet’, though far from blue: pie azul, pied bleu. In Catalan/Valenciano they go by a number of names — pentinella or pimpinella morada, escarlat morat, peu violeta, lileta, blaveta. In Basque, they are oin urdin, in German, violetter Rötelritterling. Their binomial name is Lepista nuda or Clitocybe nuda. Wood blewits are “a highly esteemed edible mushroom … also popular when pickled” (Neuner 1978). Spanish fungi webpages caution that the blewit is only edible when cooked; uncooked it is venenosa (‘toxic’). And even when cooked, it may cause a laxative effect in some people. The blewit is usually found from autumn to winter in forests and open spaces.
As I have mentioned before, I would not risk eating any fungus that I find in the garden or elsewhere until I have gained identification skills, and perhaps not even then. Michael Kuo (of mushroomexpert.com) says it takes over two years to learn how to properly identify mushrooms, and even he rarely eats mushrooms that he collects. (Nevertheless, I did feel that I was wasting nature’s bounty. Just to give you an idea of how plentiful the blewits in the garden were, had I gathered them I would’ve had enough for appetizers for three.)
So how to go about confirming these are blewits? I checked the descriptions and photographs in several hardcopy and online references (see list below). From the colour and shape of the cap, the crowded gills, and the way the gills met the stem, it appeared that I may have blewits. However, further searching revealed that blewits are not the only violet-coloured fungi. Several Cortinarius species are too — C. amoenolens, C. collinitis, C. croceo-caeruleus, C. evernius, C. purpurascens, C. sodagnitus, C. traganus. Unlike blewits though, the edibility of these is unknown. There is one rare Cortinarius species that is violet and edible, C. violacea, and smells a bit like cedar wood, per Roger Phillips.
Additionally confounding, some Hygrocybe and Laccaria species also have purple caps. Yet another species, Tilopilus rubrobrunneus, can have a purple to purplish-brown cap. However this last is a Bolete, which means it has pores beneath its cap instead of gills like the blewit, so it can be eliminated from this exercise.
Colour is insufficient as an identifier, clearly. Expert mycologists always recommend taking a spore print. Blewit spores are said to be pink or pink- buff. The first spore print I took was more like beige: when scraped together, the pile of spores appeared like loose face powder. (Here’s something a make-up user can readily grasp.)
Another distinguishing characteristic of wood blewits is scent. Some male mycologists say they smell fragrant. They don’t say which fragrance though. Roger Phillips says they have a distinct or odd smell without further explanation. David Arora, the world-renowned mycologist and author of Mushrooms Demystified, says they smell of frozen orange juice. Son No. 2, here for a visit, has an extra keen sense of smell and he affirmed they smelled flowery. Youtube videos in Spanish also claim blewits’ scent as ‘afrutado’ (fruity). Well, these lilac fungi smelled nothing like fragrant flowers or juice or fruit. To me they smelled like very fresh champignons.
This brief first exercise has me more than convinced that identifying mushrooms is a complicated business indeed, even one with the fairly distinct cap, gills, and stalk colour of lilac or pale violet. And even though spore colour is supposedly sufficient for distinguishing certain fungi, in some cases, as above, it may not be enough. A really good microscope would definitively identify blewits by the shape of their spores. But I don’t have one now, having got rid of ours in an excess of downsizing zeal just before moving to Spain.
Conclusion? Perhaps the lavender-coloured fungi in my garden are Lepista nuda, based largely on images here. It has helped enormously to view as many photographs of blewits as possible, because the range of their forms and colours is so vast. This UK wild food site mentions that Lepista nuda spores can be off-white. In that case then, these fungi could very well be wood blewits. The second spore print I took of another fresh blewit suspect appeared pinky buff, thus confirming that they are blewits. But I’m still not considering eating them. Admiring their wonderful colour is more than enough for me.
Kuo, M. Clitocybe nuda. http://www.mushroomexpert.com/clitocybe_nuda.html
Kuo, M. Waxy caps: The Hygrophoraceae family, in part. http://www.mushroomexpert.com/hygrophoraceae.html
Kuo, M. The genus Tylopilus. http://www.mushroomexpert.com/tylopilus.html
Neuner, Andreas. 1977. (English translation by Fred Bradley, 1978). British and European Mushrooms and Fungi. London: Chatto & Windus.
Phillips, Roger. 1981. Mushrooms and Other Fungi of Great Britain and Europe: The Most Comprehensively Illustrated Book on the Subject This Century. Macmillan: London.