My ethnobotany course includes eight days at Kew, and I’ve just had the final two. I have photos of the orchid extravaganza I will upload in due course, but for me the highlight of this trip was a visit to somewhere I never new existed – the Fungarium.

This is where Kew keeps is specimens of fungi, all dried and laid out like herbarium specimens. For a long time, fungi were considered to be in the plant kingdom, and so have traditionally been studied by botanists. Now they have their own place in Kingdom Fungi, but ethnobotany still includes the study of the human uses of fungi.

Litmus

Lichens are a combination of two organisms – a fungus and (usually) a green alga. They’re named after the fungus. This one is Rocella tinctoria and it’s used to make litmus paper and also as a dye. Lichen dyes don’t need mordants to allow the colour to stick to the fibres (particularly with wool), although they do need macerating in urine for a couple of weeks before they’re used…!

Fungal colours

Other fungi can be used for dyeing too, but to produce these colours you would need a mordant.

The Summer Truffle

Truffles are economically important, although this particular specimen is the Summer Truffle rather than the immensely expensive black or white truffles so sought after by gourmets.

We weren’t allowed to see the hallucinogenic mushroom specimens – they’re considered to be Class A drugs and so the specimens have to be kept under lock and key in the Fungarium, and a log kept of when they are removed!

Reverend Joseph Miles Berkeley was the father of British mycology, and even coined the term. He donated nearly 35,000 fungi specimens to Kew, of which 5000 are Type specimens. The Kew Fungarium now has over a million specimens, and may be the largest fungarium in the world.

With the advent of DNA studies, taxonomy (naming things) is a rapidly changing discipline, and lots of things which were considered to be fungi now aren’t, although they are still studied by mycologists. Two of the examples of interest to gardeners are potato blight (Phytophthora infestans, an oomycete now in Kingdom Chromalveolata) and clubroot (Plasmodiophora brassicae, which used to be considered a slime mold but is now in Kingdom Rhizaria). I imagine gardeners will continue to refer to them as fungal diseases.