Finding out about mushrooms at Quinta de São Francisco

Sheltered by the shade of the treetops, among the foliage that accumulates on the ground and even on dead trunks, there are over 50 species of mushrooms at Quinta de São Francisco. Discover some of these mycological wonders, some poisonous, some edible and others with a rather peculiar appearance, to say the least.

Quinta de São Francisco, on the outskirts of Aveiro, serves as a refuge for countless interesting creatures, including fifty or so species of wild mushrooms, each one with its own unique colour, shape, and characteristics.

“We have photographed and observed around 50 species. Although not all of them have yet been properly identified, this variety is a good illustration of the biodiversity of the macrofungi that can be found here”, says João Ezequiel, curator of this important conservation area for The Navigator Company, who adds: “learning about and publicising these species helps us to raise awareness of the fundamental role of mushrooms in forest ecosystems”.

Most of the mushrooms at Quinta de São Francisco can be seen after the first rains, from autumn onwards and during winter, because it is in damper conditions that many of these mycological wonders show themselves, “although they remain here all year round, invisible to the human eye”.

Like icebergs, the visible part of the mushroom is only a small fraction of these mysterious organisms. Under the soil, thin filaments (called hyphae) extend to form intricate networks (mycelium) that can stretch for several kilometres like roots. What we observe on the ground are only the reproductive ends of these creatures: fructifications (structures with functions similar to plant fruits) and sources of the spores (reproductive cells).

When we observe clusters of mushrooms of the same species, they are linked together by this underground network and often belong to the same organism. This is the case with the so-called fairy rings, mysterious circular formations composed of mushrooms which, in Irish mythology, were believed to create magical portals.

The most spectacular mushroom cluster at Quinta de São Francisco

Of all the mushroom clusters at Quinta de São Francisco, the fairy ring of the species Clitocybe nebularis is undoubtedly the most spectacular: this formation has increased in size over time, and by 2022 it will consist of more than 100 mushrooms forming a circle with a diameter of more than 10 metres. The best time to see it is during late autumn and winter.

With a light cap, which is convex in young mushrooms, becoming flatter or tapering with age, this species is recognisable by its odour, which is not particularly pleasant. Some people eat them after they have been thoroughly cooked, but for many the experience is not the best and leads to gastrointestinal problems.

Fairy rings generally consist of saprophytic mushroom species, the fruiting of which occurs in the most recent part of the mycelium, and grows in a circle. The term “saprophytic” is one of three classifications of mushrooms, according to the substrate they settle on. Saprophytes are fungi that live on decaying organic matter: dead leaves, branches and trunks, corpses, and excrement. The other two classifications refer to parasitic and mycorrhizal species.


Honey fungus: a parasite

Parasites are organisms that feed on the nutrients they absorb from their hosts (plants and animals) and they too can be found among the mushrooms at Quinta de São Francisco.

The honey fugus (Armillaria mellea) is one example. It can be seen mainly in autumn and winter, also in clusters, and is recognisable by its golden (honey-coloured) cap, which can vary between 5 and 15 centimetres in diameter. Its shape may also vary: more convex or flat and with different undulations.

This mushroom is usually parasitic on several species of oaks and pines and causes root rot. Although described as edible in some mushroom manuals, there are reports of poisonings, so it should not be eaten.

One curious feature of the honey fungus is that its mycelium emits light—this is due to it being bioluminescent.


It is a mycorrhizal species that is as attractive as it is poisonous

Among the most beautiful mushrooms at Quinta de São Francisco are several mycorrhizal species, such as the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), whose common name in Portuguese ‘mata-bois’ (ox-killer) advertises its dangers. This colourful mushroom, with a red cap and white spots, is reminiscent of children’s story drawings, but is poisonous as well as eye-catching.

This Amanita is especially associated with scrubland, cork oaks, holm oaks, and eucalyptus forests and can be seen mainly in late summer and autumn. It may also form fairy rings.

This is just one of the poisonous species that live on the estate. Other species to be found here include Amanita gemmata and Hypholoma fasciculare. The former is deadly poisonous, while the latter, though less harmful, has such an unpleasant smell that few are tempted to taste it.


From the edible to the bizarre…

In this journey of discovery through Quinta de São Francisco’s mushrooms, João Ezequiel guides us through a series of edible and bizarre species and some that combine both:

  • Among the edible mushroom species is the wood blewitt (Lepista nuda). Its common Portuguese name pé-violeta (violet foot) is due to the purplish tones on its cap, and the species has the advantage of fruiting almost all year round. Its aroma may be considered too intense, but it is not a risk to humans when well cooked.
  • The bay bolete (Xarocomuns badius) is also edible. With a brownish cap, its whitish flesh turns blue when it is cut, but then returns to its original shade. It has a fruity smell, a mild sweet taste and appears in numerous culinary recipes, sautéed or breaded, for example.
  • The Quinta de São Francisco is also a haven for several bizarre-looking species. The strangest is the basket stinkhorn (Clathrus ruber), an uncommon species in Portugal, reddish in colour and shaped a bit like a cage. The most bizarre feature of the red Aseroe rubra, also known as anemone stinkhorn or starfish fungus, is its smell of decaying flesh. More common in tropical climates, it has managed to extract its “revenge” among the mushrooms of Quinta de São Francisco.
  • Less scary, but equally unusual is the Clavulinopsis corniculata. If you see one on its own, its shape resembles the antlers of a deer. In clusters, it more closely resembles a yellow-orange coral. Equally curious are the trametes (Trametes versicolor), in the photo at the top, and the chicken-of-the-woods (Laetiporus sulphureus), both fan-shaped parasites. The latter are edible when very young.