Sue Parker finds fearsome fiends behind friendly façades
Here’s the kind of interaction that teaches one to leave other people’s dogs alone:
‘Does your dog bite?’
‘No; he’s very friendly.’
‘There’s a good doggie – aargh! I thought you said your dog doesn’t bite.’
‘That’s not my dog.’
Names help…sometimes. If you know that the dog’s name is Fang or Killer, you might be more cautious than if it is Lulu or Cuddles. The snag, of course, is that as with people, allocation of the name precedes the emergence of character traits.
The situation is even worse in the kingdoms of plants and of fungi, where there may be no noticeable visual or behavioural differences between the benign and the malign. Poisonous peas from a Laburnum plant mimic mange-tout forms of the edible pea Pisum sativum, while the current fashion (or is it a fleeting fad?) for Technicolor food only increases the chance of mistaking Deadly Nightshade Atropa belladonna for unusual varieties of tomatoes such as Black Cherry or Indigo Rose.
The genus name Atropa is a reference to the Greek goddess Atropos, the oldest of the Three Fates. She was known as the ‘inflexible one’ (in the sense of inevitable). Her sisters Clotho, whose job it was to spin the thread of life, and Lachensis, who measured its length, left it to Atropos to end the lives of mortals by cutting their threads with her shears. This ghastly prospect hides behind the façade of Deadly Nightshade’s benign scientific epithet belladonna: beautiful lady. This particular bella donna is a beastly beauty.
Logic suggests that we should not even think about eating anything with poison, deadly or death in its name. Among the many varied fungi found in the Algarve, shun the Deadly Webcap Cortinarius rubellus and the Deathcap Amanita phalloides, for despite their angelic appearance they are cruel killers, as their common names declare.
So what would you make of fungi bearing the common name Fairy Cakes? A quiche, perhaps? Better not, for behind this enticing façade lurks Hebeloma crustuliniforme, a menacing mushroom that also has another and much more informative common name: Poison Pie.
It hardly seems fair that such toxic fare should have been so misleadingly named. What dastardly dolt decided on the name Fairy Cake for a fungus which if eaten causes such severe symptoms as vomiting, diarrhoea and hours of appalling abdominal pain? And why? Simply because it looks very much like a perfectly-baked cup cake! Such beauty is but skin deep.
We don’t choose our peas or tomatoes simply by their appearance; we demand assurance that they are genuine through and through. Let’s call this woodland wolf in sheep’s clothing Poison Pie and vow to pass it by!
Something malign with a benign countenance may get favourable reviews (and hence a good name), but only until it gets found out. Yet, give a dog a bad name and you hang him, as the saying goes – suggesting that once a person’s reputation is tarnished, re-establishing trust and respect is an almost impossible task.
The same applies to plants and fungi too. As if being black and wrinkled wasn’t enough to put people off, the mushroom Craterellus cornucopioides has been variously dubbed Trompette de Mort (in France), Trombetta dei Morti (in Italy) and Trompetas dos Mortos (here in Portugal). And what happens to those who eat these Trumpets of Death? They have a meal to remember – and for all the right reasons.
How did these delicious, nutritious mushrooms acquire such a misleading name? Someone judged them on sight, concluding they were trumpets pushed up by the buried corpses of dead people trying to attract the attention of people on ‘the other side’ – a grave séance, you might call it.
The scientific name Craterellus cornucopioides translates to Horn of Plenty, and that is another of its common names. Still not reflecting the culinary characteristics of this mushroom, found under oak trees throughout the Algarve, the first part of the name describes its hollow form – like a horn, or a trumpet. The specific epithet has a more mythical source.
In Greek mythology, one version of the origin of Cornucopia (and there are several others) was that it was a magical horn that the young Zeus accidentally broke from the head of the goddess Amalthea. She had suckled the infant Zeus while he was hidden away from his father Cronos, who made a habit of eating his new-born sons to thwart the prophesy that he would one day be overthrown by a son. Zeus survived and overthrew Cronos. The horn of Amalthea, the Cornucopia, inherited the goddess’s divine power of providing unending supplies of nourishing food.
By Sue Parker
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Sue Parker is a Director of First Nature, Publisher of Algarve Wildlife – the natural year; Wildflowers in the Algarve; and Wild Orchids of the Algarve – how, when and where to find them.