The combination of my absence and the tropical weather has turned my garden into a wild jungle: I tried to tame it the other day but succeeded merely in clearing out all the mushrooms. I’ve never seen so many in my small patch, and pretty much everywhere I go. Mushrooms are endlessly fascinating, whether approached through a scientific, artistic, culinary, psychotic, folkloric, or toxic focus, or all of the above. Like many natural phenomena, mushrooms can dwell at the intersection of science and art, along with their greener companions in the forest and garden. And as is the case with other botanical categories, mycology is a field where women were able to make their mark before they could ever be considered proper and professional scientists. The most celebrated example of a female mycologist is Beatrix Potter, who illustrated over 350 species of fungi in the 1890s, before she turned to Peter Rabbit. Potter included cross-sections and even experimented with germination, and presented a paper (through a gentleman proxy) to the Linnean Society of London a decade before women scientists were admitted into membership.
Beatrix Potter’s drawings of Hygrophorus puniceus and Hygrocybe coccinea, Armitt Museum and Library.
I wonder if Miss Potter was influenced by the mysterious Miss M.F. Lewis, who produced three beautiful volumes of mushroom illustrations entitled Fungi collected in Shropshire and other neighborhoods beginning in the 1870s? You can check them all out at the Biodiversity Heritage Library, along with the bestselling Mushroom Book. A Popular Guide to the Identification and Study of our Commoner Fungi, with Special Emphasis on the Edible Varieties by the American mycologist, or mycological compiler, Nina Lovering Marshall.
Just across the Hudson River from Kingston, the birthplace of Miss Marshall, is the beautiful Montgomery Place, which is visited last week. In the first few decades of the twentieth century, Violetta White Delafield lived in the mansion and utilized its beautiful river-front grounds (supplemented by foraging trips throughout the Northeast) to study mushrooms, producing several scholarly works and a portfolio of lovely annotated drawings.
There seem to have been so many women enchanted by mushrooms in the early part of the twentieth century, I thought: there MUST be a Salem woman mycologist! And indeed I found one, at the very least a mushroom enthusiast and a long-time member of the Mycological Club of America, Eliza Philbrick. Miss Philbrick lived with her sister on Orne Street in North Salem, and she was extremely active in several organizations, including the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, the Samaritan Society, and the Daughters of the American Revolution. She even exhibited a painting at the Essex Institute, so I know there must be one of her mushroom illustrations out there somewhere, but I can’t find one. She is memorialized by the homemade period dress she made for a DAR anniversary dinner, which was bequeathed to the Peabody Essex Museum and featured in Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Age of Homespun, rather than her mushrooms. So in lieu of a Salem mycologist, I’ll just offer up some of my own mushrooms, found or assembled rather than discovered and drawn: material mushrooms, of the seasonless variety.