Country diary: the magic of magpie inkcaps

Wenlock Edge, Shropshire: These mushrooms are outrageously exhibitionist, and bring to mind an old song

“One for sorrow, two for joy” goes the old magpie rhyme, but these are not birds, these are mushrooms – Coprinopsis picacea, the magpie inkcap. There have been changes since the last time I walked this path between field and wood: a new wire fence erected, low-sweeping branches of an old oak lopped, debris and scrub cleared, pasture tidied and improved. In a patch where something has been disturbed under the fence is a cluster of amazing black and white fungi; fruiting bodies in various states of growth and decay. In this one patch, an egg pushes out of the ground; a dark bell-end with white feathery patches rises upwards on a stalk; at a foot tall, its cap rolls up and melts into a black inky gloop. “Three for a girl and four for a boy…”

The magpie inkcap is unusual and, although it is found in Britain and Ireland, throughout Europe and in North America, it’s rare to find such a strong group. Scientifically described in 1785 as Coprinus (an eater of dung) picacea that looks like Pica pica, the magpie – it was renamed Coprinopsis at the beginning of this century because of DNA differences with other Coprinus species such as shaggy inkcap.

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