A Different Kind of Gold

Fungi, pineapples and a Georgian obsession

Bronwen Scott

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Three brilliant yellow toadstools growing from a single spot in a plant pot, wth a couple of smaller ones popping up behind a plant stem. The toadstools have yet to open fully. They are covered in flakes.
Flowerpot Parasol (Leucocoprinus birnbaumii) in a plant pot, Atherton Tablelands, Far North Queensland. © Bronwen Scott

I am losing the battle against the toadstools in my plant pots. Not that I’m putting up a big fight. It’s a lot of effort to check the pots, pull on gloves because who knows if those things are toxic, and pick out the cadmium yellow shapes as they push their way through the soil. There’s nothing much to be gained from plucking them from the pots. But there’s a lot to be gained from watching them as they seemingly appear from nothing.

Of course, they don’t appear from nothing.

Q: So where do these fungi come from?

A: They appear out of thin air.

The first scientific record of what is now known as Flowerpot Parasol or Plantpot Dapperling (Leucocoprinus birnbaumii, Agaricaceae) is from 1785. Mycologist John Bolton described the species in his monograph An History of Fungusses, Growing about Halifax (1788), giving it the common name of Yellow Cottony Agaric.

The specimen here figured and described, grew amonst the bark in the pine-stove belonging to J. Caygill, Esq; at Sha, near Halifax, in August, 1785.

‘Sha’ is Shay House, home of John Caygill, one of the wealthiest merchants in Yorkshire. Caygill’s estate had already proved a fruitful source of fungi for Bolton. The ‘pine-stove’ is a hothouse built for the cultivation of Pineapples, the expense of which made them a status symbol in Georgian society.

Because this striking new species of Agaricaceae was not widely known and because of its tolerance for heat and humidity, it had probably arrived in soil accompanying exotic plants — perhaps with the Pineapple, a species from South America.

But Pineapples did not arrive in the hothouses of the Georgian wealthy directly from the Americas. They travelled a circuitous route.

Illustration of a wild Pineapple still on the plant with cockroaches and other insects flocking to it
Pineapple from Metamorphosis insectorum surinamensium (1705), Maria Sibylla Merian. Public Domain.

In anwer to the question: where do these fungi come from? They begin as minute spores, invisible to the unassisted eye. Drifting on the wind — they come out of thin air — the lucky ones land on soil rich in organic matter and moisture. Fine threads —…

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Bronwen Scott

Zoologist, writer, artist, museum fan, enjoying life in the tropical rainforest of Far North Queensland. She/her. Website: bronwenscott.com