Mycologist Alison Pouliot releasing book about the wonderful world of fungi

AUTHOR: Fungi expert Alison Pouliot is preparing to officially launch her new book: The Allure of Fungi. Photo: Brendan McCarthy
AUTHOR: Fungi expert Alison Pouliot is preparing to officially launch her new book: The Allure of Fungi. Photo: Brendan McCarthy

HEPBURN SHIRE’S mycologist and natural historian Alison Pouliot is on a mission to spread the word about fungi.

Ms Pouliot’s soon-to-be-officially-released book, The Allure of Fungi, is the product of 20 years of studying, teaching and photographing the fascinating world of fungi. 

It is set out as a series of separate text and photo essays.

“The book is a culmination of those years, but in particular the last three [years]. I spent 1000 days in the forests of 12 countries to understand fungi and what they do, but also interacting with people to try to understand how people understand mushrooms,” she said.

Published by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the book provides a plethora of perspectives – from mycologists and ecologists, foragers and forayers, naturalists and farmers, aesthetes and artists to philosophers and Traditional Owners – in an exploration of the history of fungi and the many fears and misconceptions that have led to their near absence in Australian biodiversiy conservation.

Ms Pouliot moves between the northern and southern hemispheres each year in order to experience two autumns and said there is a vast difference in how Australians view fungi to the rest of the world, even though it has more types of fungi than all of Europe combined due to the nation’s ecological and biological diversity.

“The book is as much about people as it is about mushrooms. It’s so exciting that people’s interest in fungi is growing. Australians have always been mycophobic (fearful of mushrooms) but this is changing as people start to realise all the medicinal and ecological benefits and the forager movement gains popularity.

FUNGI: Mycena Epipterygia. Photo: Alison Pouliot

FUNGI: Mycena Epipterygia. Photo: Alison Pouliot

“Through the book I try to understand what is behind this fear, and why other countries are mycophyllic. It is as much an ethnography in the sense that it is about people too. I use mushrooms in quite an allegorical way – it is more a lens to understand the bigger picture of nature.”

She said there was a vast spectrum of ways the world understands and relates to fungi.

“It’s not just the science or the eating of fungi – there are other ways that people relate to them as well. For some people it is just that they are an element of interest to an autumn stroll through the forest.

She said Australians were learning to love fungi with a rise in education and citizen science projects, where people can take a photo of a species, upload it online and an expert will name it for them.

“The ecological diversity of this country – from sand dunes, to tropics, forests, deserts and mangroves – is reflected through our fungi.”

“As the understanding grows, the fear disappears,” she said. “It’s that classic thing that when you don’t understand something, often we are fearful of them.”

She said, however, that Indigenous Australians had historically used fungi, but this history was not widely recorded.

“The reality is that nobody has really looked at Aboriginal knowledge of fungi and because most Aboriginal history is passed down orally, a lot of it is gone. 

“But certainly some Aboriginal people used fungi – certain fungi were eaten, certain fungi were used medicinally, certain fungi were used for body adornment and certain were used for tinder and as a light source,” she said.

“There is one that grows like an arc on the side of a tree that they would light and because they would burn so slowly over a couple of hours, they would use them as a light source.”

She said many Australians did not realise the importance of fungi and this differed to other parts of the world.

“Fungi is part of people’s general knowledge in Switzerland. Anybody you meet can name a dozen sorts of mushrooms. It is just a different sort and level of knowledge overseas.”

She said in continental Europe, knowledge of fungi was more widespread due to the traditional subsistence lifestyle. 

“As you move further north in Europe into places like Poland, Ukraine and Romania, the knowledge of fungi increases. In France they might eat chanterelles and truffles but as you get further east, they will know a hundred types of mushrooms. 

“It’s purely about economic status. The poorer countries had less choice so they had to forage. What inevitably happened is people were poisoned, triggering the science to work out which ones are toxic and which are edible.”

She said foraging histories were an impetus to develop the science. 

“The folklore of fungi was an impetus to develop the mycology,” she said.

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Fungi was exciting, she said, because many types were still unnamed, meaning there was a whole world out there for people to discover.

“People have been studying trees for a long time so they all have a name, but most fungi don’t – that’s an amazing idea to me that you can go out and find something new that is not named yet. It is an exciting prospect to discover something,” she said.

Ms Pouliot said she was fascinated by the aesthetic of fungi – its forms, colours and shapes – but with her background as a scientist, she is also interested in how fungi function and support ecosystems.

“For me, understanding how fungi underpin the ecology of every terrestrial ecosystem is crucial. But also their choice of habitat and extreme diversity.”

The Allure of Fungi will be launched at The Woodshed on Raglan St, Daylesford on February 28 at 6pm.