Biographies of the Great Mycologists

Lucien Quelet, mycologist

Lucien Quélet

If you take an interest in fungi, it won’t be very long before you are reading some of the serious scientific works on the subject of mycology. I did say reading… not necessarily understanding. The trouble is that, like anything else you might try to learn about – whether it be birdwatching or stamp collecting – the science of fungi is shrouded not so much in mystery (although mushrooms certainly are mysterious organisms) as in its own almost impenetrable jargon. Technical terms such as ‘cystidia’ and ‘infundibuliform’ can be looked up in a dictionary or Googled for guidance, but rarely do we find all that we need in one place. The same is largely the case with the history of mycology and, in particular, biographical details of great mycologists of the past: coverage is either superficial to the point where dates of birth and death are virtually all you get to know or, at the other extreme, you have to plough through pages of details of early childhood illnesses, preferences for plums over cherries, or whatever the author has been able to exhume (no corpse pictures in my own research so far, thank goodness!) and decided to fill the page with.

Having decided that what I most wanted to learn about was what an authority had contributed to the body of scientific knowledge and in what circumstances they did so – many had demanding careers outside of science and biology, but yet contributed enormously to what we know so far about the kingdom of fungi – I thought ‘Surely I cannot be alone in this need’. Hence, over the past few months, I have been gradually adding biographical details of mycological giants of the past to the fungi section of www.first-nature.com and I hope that the new pages will be a helpful start for anyone else seeking similar enlightenment. Famous French mycologist Lucien Quélet (1832 – 1899) is the latest addition to the Hall of Fame. His page is online here…

As well as naming and describing many fungal species (and despite recent rigorous assessment based on molecular analysis most of them have retained the names that Quélet gave them) Lucien Q is immortalised by two mushroom species that are named in his honour. One is Boletus queletii, a pored woodland bolete, and the other is Russula queletii, another woodland species, commonly referred to as the Fruity Brittlegill. Here is a picture of the latter:

Russula queletii, the Fruity Brittlegill, named in honour of Lucien Quelet

Russula queletii, the Fruity Brittlegill, is one of two mushroom species that have been named in honour of Lucien Quelet

Basidiolichen on the Migneint

Lichenomphalia umbellifera the Lichen Agaric Getting on for 20,000 lichenised fungi (usually abbreviated to ‘lichens’) are known, and nearly all of them have an ascomycete (spore shooter) fungus as the mycobiont. Just a few dozen have basidiomycete (spore dropper) mycobionts, and these kinds of lichens are therefore referred to as basidiolichens. Half a dozen or so basidiolichens are found in Britain, and I saw one of them in early July 2012.

I had gone with colleagues from the Countryside Council for Wales and the National Trust to see some of the work going on to restore upland peat bogs on Migneint, a huge mountainous area in North Wales. Much of the work involves blocking up drainage ditches so that these vast upland bogs remain wet and so act as carbon storage reservoirs. (When peat bogs are drained the stored carbon, comprising dead sphagnum moss and plant debris built up over thousands of years, dries out and releases much of its carbon into the atmosphere as greenhouse gases.) There are many other ecosystem services from  ‘healthy’ upland bog habitats, including maintaining vital river flows during periods of severe drought. We are not in drought-worry mode in Wales this summer!

Close-up of the LIchen Agaric

The Lichen Agaric requires a sphagnum moss habitat

Growing in the sphagnum moss were pale ochre mushrooms that looked quite similar to Loreleia marchantiaethe Liverwort Navel – a small funnel-shaped cap-and-stem basidiomycete that grows on Umbrella Liverwort. These were rather paler, though, and on close inspection I noticed that the fungal fruitbodies were sprouting from green algal blobs on the stems of the sphagnum. They were, I realised, Lichenomphalia umbellifera – something that I had been hoping to see one day. (They are not rare, but they certainly don’t occur everywhere.) The fungal fruitbodies of this species, which some people call the Lichen Agaric, are cap-and-stem gilled fruitbodies related to the waxcaps, Hygrophoraceae.