Hentry Jephson wandered in the countryside nearby Bristol during a Covid lockdown when his eye was caught by the ghostly appearance of a lion’s mane mushroom, its shaggy leaves hanging over a tree trunk.
Jephson, the head of research at the Bristol Fungarium, knew he was looking at something rare and special. A staple of traditional Chinese medicine, the lion’s mane is also native to the UK but is under threat. The “absolutely enormous” specimen spotted by Jephson was the first seen in the southwest England in eight years.
Little did he know then that the fungus would change the focus of Jephson’s work. He works closely with Natural England and the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) to restore native mushrooms to England’s woodlands. He helps run a mushroom farm, which has transitioned from growing oyster and shiitake mushrooms for restaurants, to preserving native fungi and creating health supplements from them.
Lion’s mane is so rare that it is illegal to collect it from the wild, and it must be left undisturbed. Jephson was happy to admire it during his walks around the farm where he found it, still thriving in the wild.
So one day he was shocked when he saw that the landowner had cut down his host tree. Speaking at the Oxford Real Farming conference, he said: “The mushroom was smashed all over the ground in big soggy pieces. And when we found ourselves in a slightly unique situation because it’s illegal to collect, we picked up a good chunk of lion’s mane and took it back to the mushroom farm and started trying to get a clean culture of it.”
Jephson cloned the mushroom and keeps his culture going 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, with lion’s mane still growing on it.
This led the fungus down the path of keeping native mushrooms alive. “It was finding the lion’s mane that really set us down that path of cloning rare mushrooms. And now people are approaching us to have natural strains.
“Of course England and RHS Wisley [have] slightly different projects, and use our strains to experiment. Wisley is interested in the insects that feed on mushrooms, so we have grown strains on their site on logs in their garden to monitor the insects that come.
“Of course England has several strains of native mushrooms that they want to place in woodland. They want to track how tracks move through woodland, but also to encourage deep rot fungi. So definitely mushrooms break down different parts of the trees, and we want, to encourage biodiversity, mushrooms that are good for breaking down.”
Rare fungi are not only at risk from unwitting landowners and their axes – there are fears that spores from commercial farms could spread into the wild and affect native mushrooms.
“Mushroom farming is becoming more and more popular, which is great,” Jephson said, “but all these commercial strains coming in, all these spores being put out in the environment, we just don’t know what they’re doing to local people. ecology.
“I was talking to someone at a truffle festival a few months ago, and they said they found yellow oyster mushrooms. And they started growing on a hay bale in the summer. 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 somewhere around there, or even a grow kit that someone had grown in a windowsill, and these yellow oyster spores found their way into the area. , on a hay bale.”
Native, wild mushrooms may be better for human health than commercial strains, Jephson said: “The commercial strains were selected for high yield, fast growth. Our mushrooms are the opposite. They grow in ugly lumps. They grow incredibly slowly. They are really picky about conditions. But they taste amazing, and our British strain of lion’s mane has been tested for medicinal compounds in it, and the wild clone has 30% more beta glucans than the commercial tribes.”