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A sighting of a rare mushroom near Bristol has inspired a project to clone native fungi.
Environment Science

A sighting of a rare mushroom near Bristol has inspired a project to clone native fungi.


During a lockdown due to Covid, Henry Jephson was exploring the countryside near Bristol when he noticed a eerie-looking lion’s mane mushroom. Its shaggy fronds were draped over a tree trunk, catching his attention.

Jephson, the head researcher at the Bristol Fungarium, recognized that he had come across a unique and valuable find. The lion’s mane, commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine, can also be found in the UK but is currently endangered. The “exceptionally large” specimen that Jephson discovered was the first of its kind to be observed in south-west England in the past eight years.

At the time, he was unaware that the fungus would shift the direction of Jephson’s efforts. Currently, he collaborates with Natural England and the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in an effort to reintroduce native mushrooms to England’s forests. He is involved in managing a mushroom farm that has transitioned from cultivating oyster and shiitake mushrooms for restaurants to preserving native fungi and producing nutritional supplements from them.

The lion’s mane is a highly elusive specimen, making it unlawful to harvest from its natural habitat. Therefore, it must be left untouched. During his strolls around the farm, Jephson was delighted to come across this magnificent creature and was glad to see it flourishing in its natural environment.

One day, he was surprised to find that the landowner had cut down the tree that hosted the mushroom. At the Oxford Real Farming Conference, he shared, “The mushroom was destroyed and scattered all over the ground. We were in a peculiar situation because it is illegal to collect them, so we grabbed a large chunk of lion’s mane and brought it back to the mushroom farm to attempt to obtain a pure culture.”

Jephson has cloned the mushroom and is keeping its culture going at the farm. He also spoke to the landowner, who was unaware of the rare nature of the fungus, and he has left the tree stump alone, with lion’s mane still growing on it.

The discovery of the lion’s mane mushroom prompted the fungarium to focus on preserving native mushroom species. This led to a demand for natural strains from interested individuals.

“Both Natural England and RHS Wisley are conducting separate projects in collaboration with our organization, utilizing our strains for experimental purposes. Wisley is specifically studying the insect population that feeds on mushrooms and has grown our strains on logs in their garden for observation.”

Natural England is interested in introducing various types of native mushrooms into woodland. They aim to monitor the spread of spores within the woodland and promote the growth of deep rot fungus. As mushrooms play a crucial role in decomposing different parts of trees, it is important to have a diverse range of mushrooms that are effective at this task in order to support biodiversity.

There is a concern that rare fungi could be endangered not only by unknowing landowners and their tools, but also by the potential spread of spores from commercial farms into natural habitats, potentially impacting native mushroom species.

According to Jephson, the trend of mushroom farming is gaining popularity, which is positive. However, the introduction of commercial strains and release of spores into the environment raises concerns about their potential impact on local ecology.

A few months back, while at a truffle festival, I spoke with someone who had discovered yellow oyster mushrooms. They had grown on a hay bale during the summer and are considered an exotic species. It was a surprising find, considering they were found in a remote location.

The person was unsure if there was a mushroom farm in the vicinity, but it is likely that one existed somewhere nearby. There could have also been a grow kit being used to cultivate mushrooms on a windowsill, and it’s possible that these yellow oyster spores spread to a hay bale.

According to Jephson, wild mushrooms that are native to an area may have more health benefits compared to commercially grown strains. This is because commercial strains are typically chosen for their high production and rapid growth, while the wild mushrooms are the opposite – growing slowly and in uneven shapes. They also have specific environmental requirements. However, the wild clone of lion’s mane in the UK has been found to contain medicinal compounds and 30% more beta glucans than the commercial strains, making them incredibly flavorful.

Source: theguardian.com