From childhood we are taught that most mushrooms in the wild are poisonous and we should stay away, but this has not deterred Justin Williams, a marketing manager by day and a field mycologist in evenings and weekends.
Over the past eight years, he has scoured fynbos-clad dunes where he grew up in Fish Hoek searching for morels that were once abundant and endemic to the Western Cape before the valley was built up.
The pitted ridges and hollow insides of their golden-brown to dark-brown caps, positioned atop a creamy-white to tan-brown stem, are characteristic of the genus of true morel mushrooms, classified as Morchella.
Mr Williams, 35, of Sea Point, also enjoys cooking and says these mushrooms are highly-prized and edible. “In appearance, the mushroom would certainly not look edible to the first-time observer, but to those in the know, it’s divine once cooked. They have a crunchy texture and taste of a mixture of roast beef and hazelnuts.” He cautions that morels are toxic if eaten raw.
He found his first morel in 2015, after a lengthy period spent searching for them and piecing information together. Then, in spring last year, he found a few spots in the south peninsula with more morels.
Mr Williams says the native Morchella that occurs in Hangklip sand fynbos from Fish Hoek to Cape Agulhas appeared to have some kind of mycorrhizal association – a symbiotic association between plant roots and fungi – with dune conebush (Leucadendron coniferum), a Proteaceae that is listed as vulnerable on the red list of South African plants.
Meanwhile, Breyten van der Merwe, who studies microbiology and genetics at Stellenbosch University under Professor Karin Jacobs, has been following Mr Williams on social media.
“He makes interesting and well-informed posts and is the local expert on Cape morels (ascomycetes). I contacted him asking for specimens to study their environment and interactions with fynbos.
“Our research indicates that this morel could be a new species, with its closest relative appearing to be Morchella kaibabensis from across the Atlantic Ocean. We hope to describe this morel as Morchella capensis – from the Cape. Genetically, the Cape morel appears unique and their apparent relationship with dune conebush (Leucadendron coniferum), a plant endemic to the Western Cape, helps confirm this,” says Mr Van der Merwe.
Mr Williams also donated some samples of this local morel to the Fish Hoek Valley Museum. Margaret Gundry created a display with photos and information from Mr Williams.
“I believe this is the first morel described to be indigenous to South Africa, especially since the taxonomic overhaul of the Morchella genus in 2012. It is highly probable that there are more. We must protect our native habitats as we have yet so much to learn about them,” says Mr Williams.
He gives foraging tours and is also writing a book, Mushroom Hunting in South Africa, which should be on the shelves next year.
Mr Williams says foraging for mushrooms around Constantia, Newlands and Hout Bay is predominantly good because of the non-native trees introduced from Europe, which also harbour the mycelium (fungal roots) of delicacies such as Porcini (Boletus edulis), Saffron Milk Caps (Lactarius deliciosus) and Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus).
He stresses the importance of positively identifying safe wild mushrooms before consuming them, and not foraging in protected or private land without permission or a permit.