Mushrooms' fresh flavour of cinnamon, jellybabies and lemons

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The Independent Online

They could be the names of rock bands: Lemon Disco, Cinnamon Jellybaby, Smoky Bracket. "He was Smoky Bracket's lead singer."

They could be the names of pirates: Redleg Toughshank. Mudwort Smut, Rancid Bonnet, Black Tooth. "Toughshank, Smut and Bonnet were all bloodthirsty members of Black Tooth's crew."

They could be the names of mad scientists or little-known 19th-century scholars: Thimble Morel, Elder Whitewash, Birch Brittlegill, Rufous Milkcap. "Morel and Whitewash both were highly scornful of Brittlegill's interpretation of Milkcap's thesis."

They could be paint shades, or even lipsticks: Beige Coral, Palamino Cup, Witches' Butter. They could be exotic dancers: Silky Rosegill, Foxy Fibrecap, Feather Stalkball. They could even be among the obscurer denizens of J R R Tolkien's Middle Earth or J K Rowling's Hogwarts: Drumstick Truffleclub, Rooting Poisonpie, Skullcap Dapperling. But they are none of those. They are fungi.

They are some of nearly 1,000 British mushroom and toadstool species which have long had scientific names in Latin, but lacked a moniker in English. And now that has been rectified, with a gigantic naming exercise by British mycologists, or fungus experts.

There are 20,000 species of fungi in this country but only about 100 of them have long had common names in English, such as Wood Blewit, Yellow Stainer, Fly Agaric, Death Cap, Giant Puffball, Shaggy Inkcap and Chicken of the Woods. The others are known only by their twin Latin names, some of which are as hard to pronounce as they are to remember.

So in an attempt to make fungi more accessible to non-specialists and foster more interest in them, English Nature, Scottish Natural Heritage and the wildflower charity Plantlife International joined forces with the British Mycological Society to produce a list of acceptable English names for up to 1,000 of the commoner species.

The names were drawn up by Elizabeth Holden, a Scottish-based mycologist, using a combination of old and new guides to fungi, and her imagination. Today, the list is published and endorsed by the groups who commissioned it, and who hope it will become widely accepted.

The final 978 names are often vivid, and at first sight, unusual or even almost surreal. But Peter Marren, a well-known writer on the natural world who is himself a leading mycologist, thinks Ms Holden has got it just about right.

"The names seem to have a certain amount of bounce, but also an element of dignity," he said. "She has chosen names which have a chance of sticking in people's minds, but are also descriptive, with just the right amount of imagination."

One of the problems, Mr Marren said, was that numerous different English names had been made up in recent years by authors of field guides to mushrooms and toadstools. "Names are invented by the author at the request of the publisher in almost any field guide you care to look in," he said. "It's never the book the expert wants to write - it's the book the publisher want to sell, full of cookery hints, with English names for everything. And in most cases there aren't any, so the author has had to make them up."

But as someone who took people on "fungus forays", or guided walks through the woods looking for toadstools and wild mushrooms, he welcomed the fact that there were now English names in an agreed list. "It's a good idea," he said. "The same sort of people come back year after year on fungus forays. They're very keen and find fungi terribly interesting, but sometimes the names of what we find are in Latin, often polysyllabic, commemorating some dead Russian with six z's in his name.

"If I talk to them about the Bjerkandera adusta, I watch their eyes glaze over. Whereas a name like Smoky Bracket [its new English name] will enter their discourse. They'll remember it and talk about it. Bjerkandera adusta or Smoky Bracket - ask yourself which one you would remember."

Ms Holden's English names echo the "binomial" system of the great Swedish naturalist Linnaeus, which is now used universally. This uses one word for the genus or sub-family, and another for the species itself - although in her system the specific name comes first and the generic name second, as in Redleg Toughshank, Spindle Toughshank and Spotted Toughshank.