Shaggy Mane mushroom (Coprinus comatus)

C. comatus is one of the easiest to identify owing to its unique appearance, and only one other mushroom kind of resembles it. What’s more, you’re much more likely to find them walking around your neighbourhood than your local forest. The trick is, however, to firstly collect in the morning before they begin to decompose – which happens fairly rapidly after fruiting and accelerated by the afternoon sun – and secondly, cook them the right way to get the full benefit of this flavourful but flimsy mushroom. The taste is good, subtle and earthy, becoming stronger with age.

Fresh Shaggy mane mushrooms (Coprinus comatus) © Justin Williams

They’re successful colonisers; a species that has learned to capitalise on our urban expansion. Where there are well-composted lawns, piles of old grass clippings, disturbed areas – even rubbish heaps – these mushrooms won’t be far away. Timing is of the utmost importance when gathering them though. Once harvested, decomposition kicks into a higher gear. This is the main reason why they are not commercially available – C. comatus is relatively easy to cultivate on manure-based composites that are rich in nitrogen, but has a very brief shelf life – the ink is formed as a result of deliquescence, a process where the mushroom steadily digests itself through the use of enzymes, beginning from the edges of the cap once it begins to open up and separate from the stem. This non-toxic (and surprisingly edible) jet-black ink was used during ancient times to write letters with.The collected ink can be mixed into a pot over the stove with just a little water, a few cloves are added and the pot brought to a medium heat before removing off the stove. This process “fixes” the ink and stops it from fading or streaking. Shaggy Mane ink creates a fine, high-quality finish.

In mycology, what was once thought to be one C. comatus species actually turned out to be at least four very similar species – all equally edible – so closely related that to most they are indistinguishable from another. Recorded in South Africa has also been C. sterquilinus, the Midden Inkcap, which looks similar and equally edible, but it predominantly grows from dung, especially horse manure. Another species, C. calyptratus is a close look alike that often has a distinctive, star-shaped cap patch, a remnant of the universal veil. This feature, including a marginate bulb, separates it from true C. comatus. Young specimens of both are superficially similar, but C. comatus has a veil that breaks up into erect cap scales, as well as the presence of an annulus.

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