Welcome to my blog

This is where I post various musings about wildlife and ecology, observations of interesting species (often invertebrates)
and bits of research that grab my attention. As well as blogging, I undertake professional ecological & wildlife surveys
covering invertebrates, plants, birds, reptiles, amphibians and some mammals, plus habitat assessment and management
. I don't work on planning applications/for developers. The pages on the right will tell you more about my work,
main interests and key projects, and you can follow my academic work here.

Sunday 8 September 2013

Smutty farming

Yup, an obvious pun I know, but hey... as you may know if you read this blog regularly, I am a stakeholder in a community farm - we're chemical-free and pretty wildlife-friendly, and as such use either (a) cunning or (b) many pairs of hands to deal with pests. Of course, we get a few, but they can be interesting in their own right - like yesterday when I found a single fist-sized growth of common smut fungus (Ustilago maydis) at the base of one of our sweetcorn plants.

Common smut Ustilago maydis on sweetcorn
Close-up of U. maydis showing a small growth of the sweetcorn plant.
The fungus can grow on any part of the plant, though, as here, it most commonly affects the cob/seeds which expand and become filled with spores - essentially it causes a gall. It is fairly common, and its presence this year is unsurprising as conditions have been ideal - hot, dry weather while the plants are establishing, followed by rain as they mature - exactly what has occurred. It can cause major crop losses, though our non-intensive 'hands-on' approach means that we'll simply look out for and remove any more if they appear (the standard advice is to burn or bin them, but not compost them as the spores will survive and spread).

Interestingly though, I have found out that the fungus is actually edible, particularly if relatively young (this specimen was very mature and entirely spore-filled), and in Mexico is a delicacy known as 'huitlacoche' which is eaten in a succotash, or in tacos or omelettes. Apparently it's kind of nutty-mushroomy and quite nice but not popular elsewhere as it's seen as a 'disease'/'rot' rather than food - and I must admit it doesn't look that appealing. However, if I find another, less mature one, I'm going to try it - seems a good use of a failed cob! I may report the results here...


  1. Hope you find another one to try! Although I'll admit the mature one you already found doesn't look like the most appetising mushroom I've ever seen ...