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Case Studies

Drummond's luminous fungus

James Drummond (1784-1863) was a prolific botanical collector in Western Australia and corresponded with Sir William Hooker, director of the botanic gardens at Kew, London. Drummond's is the first published account of the species Omphalotus nidiformis, which glows in the dark, as you can see here.

Below is an extract of a letter of July 2 1841 from Drummond to Hooker, who published it in 1842 on pages 215-217 of volume 1 of the London Journal of Botany. The term pileus is simply another word for the cap of a mushroom.

As respects Fungi, however, I would chiefly like to give you some account of two species of Agaricus, belonging to that division which has the stem at the side of the pileus. They grow parasitically on the stumps of trees, and possess nothing remarkable in their appearance by day, but by night they emit a most curious light, such as I never saw described in any book. The first species in which I observed this property, was about two inches across, and was growing in clusters on the stump of a Banksia tree, near the jetty at Perth, Western Australia. The stump was at the time surrounded with water when I happened to be passing on a dark night, and was much surprised to see what appeared to be a light in such a spot; on examination I found it to proceed from this Fungus. The late Dr. Collie, then our Colonial Surgeon, possessed a good collection of botanical books, which he and I jointly consulted, but without finding any thing which bore on the subject. When this fungus was laid on a newspaper, it emitted by night a phosphorescent light, enabling us to read the words around it; and it continued to do so for several nights with gradually decreasing intensity as the plant dried up.

A few weeks ago, and not till then, I discovered another instance of the same kind. I was collecting plants on an ironstone hill, in the Toodjay district, when I was struck with the beauty of a large fungus, of the same character as the former, but measuring sixteen inches across, and about a foot from the root to the extremity of the pileus. The specimen which I carried home weighed about five pounds, was very smooth, yellowish-brown above, and dirty-white upon the gills: it gradually became thinner towards the outer edge of the pileus, where it was waved and sinuated, It was the beauty of the species which induced me to gather it, for as to making a full collection of the Swan River Fungi, such a task would require an entire season, and the skill of a person who could make drawings or models of them. The specimen in question was hung up inside the chimney of our sitting room to dry, and on passing through the apartment in the dark I observed the Fungus giving out a most remarkable light, similar to what I described above. No light is so white as this, at least none that I have ever seen. The luminous property continued, though gradually diminishing, for four or five nights, when it ceased on the plant becoming dry. We called some of the natives, and showed them this fungus when emitting light, the room was dark, for the fire was very low and the candles extinguished, and the poor creatures cried out 'Chinga!' their name for a spirit, and seemed much afraid of it; and I certainly must own it as a very extraordinary Will-o'the-Wisp.

On June 26 of the same year Drummond wrote:

During my late expedition to the south of the Vasse, my opportunities of discovering luminous phosphorescent Fungi were rather better then I could have wished. For several days and nights I was incessantly wet to the skin, my lucifer matches incapable of ignition from the damp, and my hands blistered with making fire after the native fashion; when, one night, after all my efforts to procure a fire had been unavailing, I descried afar off, in the forest, a tree which I imagined must have been set ablaze by lightning. On making my way to it, I found that the light was produced by a remarkable Agaric, which grew, tier above tier, up the trunk of a dead Eucalyptus occidentalis. The species is different from that which I described in a former letter: the upper surface of the pileus being nearly black in the centre and the gills milk-white. This curious property appears to be not uncommon among the Agarics which have the stem at one side of the pileus, and grow on dead wood.

That paragraph appears on page 173 of volume 2 of the London Journal of Botany, published in 1843.

In 1844 the Reverend MJ Berkeley, an English mycologist, published the first description of a species he called Agaricus nidiformis. The description appears on pages 185-186 of volume 3 of the London Journal of Botany. The description was based on material sent to London by Drummond and the fungus was reported as growing on the ground. In 1845, on pages 44-45 of the 4th volume of the same journal, Berkeley described the species Agaricus lampas, based on another of Drummond's collections, this time from the "stems of sickly but living plants of Grevillea drummondii...near the roots". Berkeley noted that this species was "allied to Ag. nidiformis, which is also phosphorescent". On pages 572-573 of the 7th volume of the same journal, in 1848, Berkeley described Agaricus phosphorus, based on a Tasmanian collection by Ronald Gunn from the "roots of trees". According to Berkeley this third species was "certainly distinct from the two phosphorescent Australian species. Ag. nidiformis and A. lampas". Finally, in 1883 and in conjunction with Christopher Broome, Berkeley published a description of the new species Panus incandescens, based on material collected by FM Bailey in Brisbane. The Berkeley & Broome paper appeared in volume 2 of the 2nd series of the Transactions of the Linnaean Society of London and the authors wrote that the fungus was "Apparently on the soil, but possibly springing from buried wood...Very luminous at night, like some other Australian Agaricini". Here are the illustrations that accompanied Berkeley & Broome's written description:

The published illustrations were based on dried specimens and were life size, so I have put a scale bar into the above picture. The red arrow points to part of the underside of a cap, showing a closer view of the gills.

Later studies concluded that the four luminous species mentioned above are in fact all the same and that species now goes by the name Omphalotus nidiformis. It grows on wood and when it seems to be growing on the ground it is in fact growing from buried wood. In this photo click to view the row of mushrooms at the Australian National Botanic Gardens is growing from a root, left when a nearby tree was removed.