Friday, April 17, 2015

Q&A with David Robinson: London-based artist, cook, and mycophile


The terms "mycophilia" (mushroom-loving) and "mycophobia" (mushroom-fearing) were coined in the 1950s by American R. Gordon Wasson and Russian Valentina Pavlovna Wasson (née Guerken) after they noticed their opposing responses to mushrooms/fungus. In their 1957 book "Mushrooms, Russia, and History," they categorized cultures as mycophilic or mycophobic according to traditional use/disuse of mushrooms and extensively discuss different mushroom myths across the globe in a semi-scientific/ethnographical manner. The title links to a free online copy of the book. 

Though I'm not convinced the implied vast divide between mycophiles/phobes is particularly valid, there does seem to be at least some truth to it here in the UK. Fungus inspires stronger feelings either way than other groups of non-sentient organisms, and many British and Americans in particular have trust issues with mushrooms. With that in mind, 'mycophiles' like David Robinson stand out. 

David is an artist who uses mushrooms to make sculptures and luminograms, has published a children's book illustrated entirely with mushrooms, and is one of the founders of SporeBoys, a mushroom-centered food stall found in London markets. He was recently featured in a BBC Radio4's Food Programme, "Mushrooms."


One of David's fungi luminograms, commissioned to promote a perfume  line called "Death, Decay, and Renewal" (LUSH, Gorilla Perfumes). See more of David's work on his website, davidrobinson.org 
What brought you to fungi in the first place?

Well… Fungi kind of found me! Until about a decade ago my only real experience of mushrooms was eating the odd toasted sandwich as a kid in Ireland (white cup mushrooms fried and eaten with good ol’ slightly synthetic toasted white bread) and in later life perhaps a shiitake or two floating in miso soup. I guess that for most of my life I didn't really pay mushrooms much attention unless mistaking a young specimen for my golf ball (I’m a total golf nut).

I have a creative background using mainly photography, working in the fields of editorial and advertising. I also for many years made photographic prints for other artists/photographers in my London-based studio/darkroom. In 2005 myself and a good friend and neighbor called Andrew Gellatly (a journalist with whom I collaborated on a few publishing projects) founded Sporeboys! The street market/street food scene was beginning to bubble in 2004 and we lived close-by to Broadway Market in London's east-end. We enjoyed cooking together - occasionally making sushi and having had recently discovered the joys of foraging for cep. After reading about a few growers of Japanese varieties near London we decided to approach the new market for a pitch. It was fairly easy then and no-one was specializing in fungi. We were both working freelance and we fancied something different to do during the weekend! On the first market day we bought 70 quids worth of shrooms, doubled our money and then lost the lot on a horse! We progressed from there, gambling less and offering fried tasters, then a Mushroom Medley Sandwich - and Risotto.

Since 2005 Sporeboys has appeared at many varied food markets and music festivals. Now we operate permanently at two Locations - Exmouth Market in Islington (weekdays, 12-2) and Broadway Market in Hackney (Saturdays, 9-3).



David makes temporary sculptures from the mushrooms he cooks before they head to the pot. You can find more of these curious creatures on his instagram (@sporeboys) and twitter

Are you mostly interested in culinary mushrooms?


Yes, mainly. Although I run a food business I actually get most of my kicks from the aesthetic of mushrooms. Over the years they have infiltrated my creative practice and I use a variety in the darkroom to create Luminograms (camera-less photographic prints).




I found the SporeBoys stand at the Broadway market on a slightly hungover Saturday afternoon. The rich mushroom risotto was a lovely treat that helped on the transition to feeling like a human again (thanks, David)
Did you cook quite a bit before starting SporeBoys?

I'm not a trained chef although my Mum was a cookery teacher so I guess I picked up a few tips - but hey, after 160,000 portions of risotto - practice makes perfect! I'm extremely good with a knife - and it is the delicate slicing of all the beautiful Japanese mushrooms at the stall that gives me the inspiration for my Luminograms and little sculptures.

An image from "The Mushroom Picker," a children's book that follows the tale of a porcini's great escape from a ruthless mushroom hunter, illustrated with "fungi luminograms"




How long have you been making the mushroom luminograms? What led you to make them? What is your process? Do you add the color-shading in after exposure?

Since 2010. I was suffering a slight creative depression prior to then - I had a small child and a mortgage, and Sporeboys had taken over my life. One day I found myself in my studio surrounded my pots/pans/gas burners and MUSHROOMS! I started writing a children's book about a mushroom that escaped The Mushroom Picker...I think I needed an escape too!I create negatives using mushrooms in the darkroom and shine light through each little sculpture onto photographic paper. The colours come from the intrinsic hue of each particular mushroom coupled with coloured filters covering the light source.


David tends the risotto. "The Mushroom Picker" is available at a very reasonable price at the SporeBoys stand, and you can purchase it from the publisher ($15+ shipping) or Amazon.com (~$20+shipping)

What led you to make a children's book? 

Years surrounded by a beautiful child, lots of illustrated books, wild and exotic mushrooms - hey presto! Actually, one of the first luminograms that I made was a little rocket using sliced cep, a few blewitts and shimeji (as far as I can remember). I loved the free-flowing naive quality that it had - as if a child had constructed it. I decided to create a story based around some of the illustrations and it grew from there. The characters are all common names for mushrooms - Slippery Jack, Penny Bun, Lawyers Wig, Stinkhorn. Yes, the intention was to create something that mixed fact and fantasy and of course opens up the world of fungi to children. My hope also was to make a book using photography that could break away from the art market a little. It hasn't quite achieved that but there is still time. One of the biggest book chains thought the cover was to too scary for children! I'm currently working on a sequel called, 'Penny Bun Helps Save The World', and we are also considering relaunching the first book complete with a padded pink cover and glittery typeface (joke!). 



[Like mushrooms? Have a child? Purchase the book at the SporeBoys stand, from the publisher ($15+shipping) or from Amazon.com (~$20+shipping).]


Make your own mushroom sculptures and dishes with fancy mushrooms available at the stand!

 Do you ever go mushroom hunting?

Yes though not often as I am quite busy running around in central London. I have a good friend in West Sussex who is a good forager (I am a terrible forager!). I go out with him in sometimes in August/Sept searching for girolle and ceps. On a good year he spends quite a few weeks picking and transporting his harvest to top restaurants in London. In general though I always buy mushrooms for the stall from pickers and growers in the UK and Europe. I often go on great fieldtrips and recently went to Alba for the Truffle Festival. I brought back 15kg of the most beautiful dried porcini. Also Andrew and I travelled to Japan on a bit of a book research trip (and skiing in Sapporo). They adore fungi!
Sporeboys attracts a huge amount of Japanese and Italian customers - so we must be doing something right.

What is your favorite mushroom-centric recipe?

Girolle lightly sautéed in butter with sage, a little garlic, sea salt and parsley - with an egg then dropped on top - Heaven!! The simplest recipes are for me the best.

Photos of David's work are from his instagram and website, used with permission

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Two new fungal citizen science initiatives!

Citizen science can be a highly valuable way to engage the public in research and generate a quantity and quality of data that otherwise wouldn't be feasible. While some projects draw on a highly informed amateur mycologist community and others other aim to inform/engage a more general public, the kinds of projects mentioned in this post help to bridge the gaps between researchers and the public while contributing to fungal diversity and monitoring programs.


New and developing initiatives:

Discovering Plant Destroyers in South Africa with Citizen Science - Forestry and Biotechnology Institute (FABI), University of Pretoria (Joey Hulbert)

Cultures growing from plant tissue [photo - J. Hulbert]
This project seeks to discover new species of Phytophthora in the forests of South Africa while engaging the public in the science process. Phytophthora is a genus of major plant pathogens (not ~technically~ a fungus, yes, I know) responsible for Sudden Oak Death (P. ramorum) and many other diseases across a wide range of plants. This project focuses on the forest diseases and aims to document unknown Phytophthora species sourced from leaf/soil/water samples collected by volunteers. Through workshops and the recruitment/training of volunteers, Joey hopes to increase access to science in underserved communities.

I'm listing this project first because there is less than two weeks left to donate to Joey's experiment.com page (this stage of fundraising ends April 23).

The post-sampling haul [photo - J. Hulbert}
Read more about the project and donate here!


The Lost & Found Fungi Project - Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

This project aims to join the mycology team at RBG Kew and the knowledgeable non-professional mycologists of Britain to assess the conservation status of rarely reported fungal species. The long history of British naturalists and their particular record-keeping habits give the project a starting point for identifying the species with a low or decreasing number of reports and sites, and the large number of mycological societies and individual naturalists with an interest in mycology form a preexisting highly knowledgeable network of volunteers.

Paul Cannon (RGB Kew mycology dept) photographs Xenotypa aterrima during a survey for Dencoeliopsis johnstonii, a small discoid fungus that grows on/with  X. aterrima. 

 This project has been funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation and is just getting off the ground as I write this.

Brian Douglas (project coordinator) inspects a fungarium specimen of an Ustilago species.
For those interested, the work flow of this project is approximately as follows:
1.  Identification of target species that are either genuinely rare or simply underreported
2.  Identification and recruitment of volunteer groups and individuals to be part of the L&F network
3.  Mapping of current and historical recording sites of each species using RGB Kew's fungarium records and FRDBI records
4.  Creation of info sheets that include description, sites, photos, and other information for public dissemination
5. Surveys or requests (timed seasonally) for targeted surveys by people/groups located in regions with historic records to give both positive and negative records
6. Processing of received samples of putative targets
7.  Assessment of "true" rareness of species and assessment of vulnerability level of habitat
8 . Formation of surveillance plans and conservation plans for truly rare and threatened species


The historical collections of Hypocreopsis lichenoides. The fungarium (fungal herbarium) at RGB Kew is the largest in the world and contains thousands upon thousands of collections representing species from around the globe. Each preserved and documented specimen is a unique historical record. Some contain photographs, microscope slides,  handwritten letters. The red folder indicates the specimen contained within may be the "type specimen," the collection from which the original species description is derived. 
Learn more about the target species and the Lost & Found Fungi Project at their website

Part of my love of projects that increase access to and involvement in biodiversity projects stems from a small fungal diversity survey that was included in Dr. Ann Willyard's "Algae & Fungi" course that I took at Hendrix College during undergrad. This project (and getting the Watson, of course) was part of what made me shift my approach to mycology from a hobby to an academic pursuit. That said, part of the power of citizen science is that it can give people with scientific and naturalistic tendencies but no wish to join academia access to resources and impactful outputs.

So, to any undergrad profs out there: contribute to your region's documentation of fungal diversity, give hands-on direction of collecting/vouchering/barcoding fungi, and encourage young mycologists with similar projects!
(The class produced a tiny publication discussing the process and results of the project which might be helpful to anyone seeking to develop and improve on similar projects- Harrington et al. 2015. Sampling local fungal diversity in an undergraduate laboratory using DNA barcoding. Journal of the Arkansas Academy of Science 68: 65-72)

Other past or ongoing fungal citizen science projects:

FungiMap.org - Putting Australian fungi on the map

"The major activity of Fungimap is a community-based mapping scheme. With the help of many volunteer observers across Australia, from professionals to amateurs, Fungimap aims to map the distribution of 125 target species of Australian fungi. These target species have been chosen so as to be reasonably easy to identify by amateurs in the field, and are generally wide-spread; you can find species descriptions of the first 100 species chosen in the Fungimap field guide Fungi Down Under.  Becoming involved in Fungimap is a very good way to gain an introduction to the world of fungi."

Sudden Oak Death Blitz - University of California, Berkeley

"SOD-blitzes inform and educate the community about Sudden Oak Death, get locals involved in detecting the disease, and produce detailed local maps of disease distribution. The map can then be used to identify those areas where the infestation may be mild enough to justify proactive management. "

North American Mycoflora Project  (and other countries' mycoflora development) - North American Mycological Association

Mycoflora are comprehensive, updated lists of the fungal diversity of a region. This list can be derived from herbarium specimens and mycological forays. The challenge is that all collections, in addition to being identified, need to be vouchered (preserved and kept in a herbarium) and ideally sequenced to be valid. Funding is a bit of an obstacle. For a real description of the problem and the possible solutions, read this article.

To an extent, websites like MushroomObserver.org and other species reporting websites are forms of citizen science as they do form a record of species distribution. The problem is that often the photos and identifications are of low quality, and more importantly, the report has no voucher. I've been guilty of this as well--with no way to legally send collections home, I had to settle for a vague ID and photo. What can ya do sometimes.

If anyone knows of other fungal (or fungus-like organism) "crowdsourcing"/"citizen science" project, send me a message to expand the post.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Saharan lichens, fungi and the "Maltese mushroom"

Saharan lichens





I saw a few mushrooms as well, but these were pretty sparse.

Podaxis sp. (aff. pistillaris)
immature Podaxis sp. near camp

One of the most interesting finds was a parasitic flower, Cynomorium coccineum. The inflorescences look very much like mushrooms from afar, and when I first saw a cluster by the side of the road I asked the Zbyzsek to stop the car. I wasn't the first to think so-- the common English name is the "Maltese mushroom." 
Cynomorium coccineum in a dry river valley. 
The plants have a global distribution and are valued as a food resource and panacea across many different culture groups. For a better look at their peculiar history, read this article.


The base of this flowering structure was attached to a pale thin taproot, which I followed to the succulent shrub (Atriplex sp.?) at right. Unfortunately, the taproot was somewhat brittle and broke during excavation. These plants don't photosynthesize, and instead harvest nutrients from the host shrub, a lifestyle known as holoparasitism. 

These were found in nearly all shrubby desert areas we visited.
The phylogeny of these plants is uncertain, largely because some of the genetic markers commonly used to analyze the the relationships between different taxa affiliate with conflicting lineages--one suggests Cynomorium is more closely related to the Saxifragales, while another suggests Sapinales. This may be because parasitic plants are so closely associated with their hosts they can undergo horizontal gene transfer (Barkman et al. 2007), though Cynomorium isn't known to currently associate with members of either lineage. Strange plants indeed.



Saturday, February 28, 2015

Detour to Morocco [Western Sahara]

Two days after I landed in London, a friend I met in South Africa messaged me to ask if I was able to join a field trip to Morocco to catch rodents in the Sahara. So of course, 24 hours later I was in Porto meeting the other members of the expedition while we packed the car for the drive from Portugal to Morocco. We had dinner in Porto, left at 2 am, had breakfast in Spain, took a ferry, and had lunch in Morocco. 

Basic daily routine: pack up camp, drive a few hours to a new trapping site, set up camp nearby, relax for a few hours until sunset, drive slowly through the desert with headlamps stuck out the windows and nets at the ready to spot and chase nocturnal rodents. 

We caught lesser Egyptian jerboas (Jaculus jaculus) by chasing them in the manner described above.

Book of North African mammals in hand, Zbyzsek asks (sort of, there's a language barrier) local camel/goat-herding nomads about rodents of the area.

Sometimes this develops into an invitation for afternoon tea. The tea is very sweet green tea, and there is some ceremony to the pouring.
Herds of camels graze on the winter greenery.
Kris sets traps to catch gerbils and attempts to keep dust out of his eyes/ears/nose/mouth. A relentless wind that drove dust into everything started mid-trip, and I didn't take many pictures during these dust storms to spare my camera the damage.
Zbyszek and Filipa return from setting traps during the 4-day dust storm.


There were some very spectacular landscapes.


Sometimes the dunes would creep over the roads and we had to go offroad to avoid getting stuck in the sand.


Filipa and Kris hard at work in the office.
Thick layer of quartz geodes in an eroded cliff bordering a riverbed. Much of the cliff was composed of flint embedded in chalk.
Geode from above site


Fresh(ish) fox skull

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

A few of the many,many fungi isolated from bark beetles (genus Ips)

Bark beetles (and their mites) eat fungal mycelium and spores, and carry spores between host trees. Here are just a few of the fungal cultures isolated some one species of bark beetle--the diversity and abundance of fungi even in this small niche is astounding.