Bedtime Reading From Beatrix Potter: Amateur Mycologist

Would Flopsy, Mopsy and Peter Cottontail have been conceived had it not been for the biases of Victorian era science?

Beatrix Potter/The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin/1903 by Frederick Warne & Co.

One of world’s largest and oldest living organisms also happens to be one of its least-respected. Nicholas P. Money’s most recent book, Mushroom, is something of a corrective and an enthusiastic outpouring for all things fungal—from a 2,400-acre colony of Armillaria ostoyae in Oregon to the supermarket’s white button mushrooms (Agaricus bisporus) right on down to the stuff that makes dandruff (Malassezia). In a testament to his passion, Money criticizes an amateur collector who’s removed a giant bolete the size of her head. “Why do people view mushrooms as so different from other living things?” he says. “Imagine, a meeting of the local Audubon Society that ended with the janitor tossing a sack of songbird eggs in the Dumpster.” Or whaling for research purposes.

Amateur mycologists foster a rare scientific partnership with professionals (a claim that perhaps only astronomers can boast of). Amateurs pioneered the study of mycology and the often-inseparable practice of mycophagy. One of these amateur mycologists was Beatrix Potter. She made careful observations of fungi and lichens, and her watercolors illustrate the 1967 British book Wayside and Woodland Fungi. Potter studied spore germination and wrote a scientific paper, but after being repeatedly snubbed—both for radical botanical views and because she a woman—she turned her attention elsewhere. Money writes:

Potter was, nevertheless, a pioneering mycologist, one whose intelligence and inquisitiveness might have been channeled into a career in science had she possessed the Y chromosome required for most Victorian professions. Fortunately, her considerable artistic talents gave her other outlets for her ambition.

Would The Tale of Peter Rabbit have been conceived had it not been for the biases of Victorian era science? Maybe not. In the paper “Bamboozled by botany, Beatrix bypasses bigoted biology, begins babying bountiful bunnies. Or Beatrix Potter as a mycologist: The period before Peter Rabbit and friends,” Rudolf Schmid suggests that “her exclusion from botany has been said to have a direct analogy to Peter Rabbit being chased out of Mr. McGregor’s garden, that is, the garden of botany.”

Curiously, though, fungi rarely appear in Potter’s tales, and then mostly as a decorative or whimsical addition. Field mushrooms sprout in The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin; Agaricus campestris is a species squirrels collect, and elsewhere Potter noted their “nasty smell” and “good flavour.” The species also laid the groundwork for cultivated mushrooms and Heinz ketchup. It’s certainly one of the more subtle depictions of food in a genre rift with delightful donkey picnics and a champagne toast between mice.

As many hundreds of times as I’ve heard the story of Flopsy, Mopsy and Peter Cottontail, I never read it as a tale of enthusiasm for the natural world. Yet, at a time when animals are apparently falling out of favor in picture books (at least among Caldecott-award winners), I thought these observations made by an amateur naturalist were a testament to looking, you might say, where no one else had—towards the lowly fungi.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.