Why magic mushrooms might still be found growing in our fields and why you shouldn't pick them

For all that the weather has taken a chilly turn in the last few days, it has been a mild winter.

John Hughes out in the woods with some (non-hallucinogenic) mushrooms
John Hughes out in the woods with some (non-hallucinogenic) mushrooms

So it is perhaps to be expected that our wildlife is adapting. And as well as a few foolhardy daffodils poking through the pre-spring soil, mushrooms are also coming into fruit at an unusual time.

Growing fungi can be an inexact science. Different mushrooms grow at different rates depending on their breed and circumstances, and fruit in different conditions. It means that there are some breeds benefiting from the current “mild snap”.

But one variety that appears to be thriving in the early part of this year is one that could also present an almighty headache to both foragers and policemen – magic mushrooms, a psychedelic, naturally-occurring class-A drug, are growing in large numbers.

Psilocybe semilanceata, as they are known scientifically, are usually long gone by now, but because of the mild weather they are still proliferous in our fields.

It’s reason enough to avoid a foraging expedition without the relevant expertise, lest you should stumble unwittingly upon a crop.

Psilocybe semilanceata normally grows on grasslands and pastures grazed by sheep and often next to nutrient-rich manure.

Some looks like red and white spotted toadstools, others with a brown cap, and they are all easily mistaken for other poisonous breeds of fungus which can cause serious harm to your health.

They also carry significant side effects. They have hallucinogenic qualities, so those who take them run the risk of a bad trip.

The mushrooms are illegal to possess, cultivate, transport or sell in the UK. But it is not an offence for them to be grown on your land – they live in the wild so it would be difficult to ban, and harder to enforce.

Jane Traynor is from the Staffordshire Fungi Group which records the different types of fungi found in local fields.

“Psilocybe semilanceata are quite common and you do find quite a lot of them around Staffordshire,” she said.

“We haven’t really had a heavy frost yet which is what usually kill them off.

“But that is much the same as a lot of mushrooms, like field mushrooms.

“There is quite a lot of fungi lurking around and some have been late growing a bit late because of the very hot and dry weather into later in the year.”

John Hughes is a fungi expert at Shropshire Wildlife Trust, and says that fungi grow and fruit at different rates depending on the conditions. Mushrooms are a difficult thing to grow with any confidence anyway, but something in the air this winter is bringing them above ground.

Psilocybe semilanceata contain the psychoactive ingredient psilocybin and they fruit to produce their mushrooms at below 15C in the day and 10C at night with the first freezing temperatures heralding the end of the season.

They became popular in the 1970s as a legal alternative to LSD but they were banned in 2005 because of their psychoactive effect.

“The autumn has got longer,” Mr Hughes added. “It used to be the case that by the end of October or November you would get fruits.

“It tends to happen when it is warm and wet. It is in the very cold conditions that things change.”

He added: “I have been out in the woods and seen fungi out and about.

“This year some things have grown well into December and beyond – it has been properly warm. It will stop when the weather changes and I would be surprised if we didn’t have cold snaps in the next couple of months.

“The thing with fungi is that is that they are everywhere and most of the time they are invisible until you see the fruits.

“In 2018 it has been so warm there has been a lot of underground growth, and from that you get more capacity to fruit.

“We don’t really understand the triggers for fruiting though. There will be a a whole series of circumstances that trigger the fruiting – it’s one of nature’s great mysteries.

“Because we don’t understand what induces fungi into fruiting we aren’t able to artificially replicate it. It’s one of the reasons that wild mushrooms on supermarkets and restaurants are so expensive.”

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