This wild edible is a spring-fruiting mushroom that appears around the feast day of St George. As well as its tendency to grow in large rings, it also has a distinctive odour.
St George’s Mushroom (Calocybe gambosa) gets its name as it rears its pretty head, quite literally, around St George’s day (April 23rd). Its scientific name is derived from the ancient Greek words kalos, meaning “pretty”, and cubos, meaning “head”, although the species name gambosus is of Latin origin and means “club footed”. You can’t have everything. The latter is in reference to the bulbousness of its stem base, which is often one-sided.
St George’s mushroom isn’t a particularly “pretty” mushroom but it does possess some classic, clean good looks with its cream to buff convex cap, sturdy stem and white gills. White-gilled mushrooms are best avoided at other times of the year, when they could poisonous Amanitas, such as the deadly destroying angel (Amanita virosa). Spring cap and stem mushrooms are scarce, however, so an identifying characteristic of this edible species is that it is one of the few to emerge in April and May.
Fungi’s fruiting season is dependent on ambient conditions and the availability of their chosen nutrient and St George’s Mushroom is a saprophyte that benefits from recently departed frosts helping to break down organic matter. Once the temperatures heat up, it’s able to spread its hyphae into the ground and grow. However, there is some debate on whether this mushroom also from mycorrhizal (symbiotic) relationships with certain plants.
In other languages, this mushroom’s name is also reflective of its fruiting window. In Germany it is known as “Maipilz” (“May mushroom”) and in southern Italy, where warmer weather prompts its earlier arrival, it is known as fungo marzolino or marzuolo, the “March mushroom”. These are a particularly prized edible in regions of Italy and Spain. In Tuscany, where it is known as prugnoli (curiously, the same Italian word as for sloes and prunes), they are a central feature of the spring Sagra (food festivals) (ITALY magazine, n.d.). In the Basque Country, it is eaten on the feast of another saint, St Prudence, which is celebrated on 28th April.
As well as being a spring mushroom, another characteristic that makes the St George hard to miss is its tendency to grow in large troops or rings. It seems to prefer chalky and limey soils and on the South Downs there are known to be huge rings of these mushrooms that are thought to be several hundred years old (Ramsbottom, 1953). These rings can grow metres across and are typically found in open grassland, beside woodland and on verges and roadsides. Although this mushroom is an infrequent find, where it appears it tends to be locally plentiful.
One factor that helps distinguish St George’s from other pale mushrooms by its mealy or yeast-like smell that some also describe as “spermatic”. While it is reputed to be one of the few mushrooms that can be eaten raw, its taste is allegedly similar to its odour! Cooked, however, their delicate flavour has made them a prized edible throughout much of southern Europe. What better way to celebrate the feast day of a saint than with a wild edible?
As a bonus, this mushroom has also demonstrated anti-fungal properties and has shown a cytotoxic affect on colon cancer cells, so may have the potential to perform the odd saintly miracle cure along the way (Angelini, 2012; Radović et al. 2022).
Angelini, P. (2012). In vitro antifungal activity of Calocybe gambosa extracts against yeasts and filamentous fungi. African Journal of Microbiology Research, 6(8).
Tagliolini with Prugnoli Mushrooms. (n.d.). ITALY Magazine.
Radović, J., Leković, A., Damjanović, A., Kopanja, Đ., Dodevska, M., Stanojković, T., Marinković, T., Jelić, Č., & Kundaković-Vasović, T. (2022). St. George’s mushroom, Calocybe gambosa (Fr.) Donk: A promising source of nutrients and biologically active compounds. Acta Alimentaria, 51(1), 134–144.
John, R. (1959). Mushrooms and toadstools. Collins.
Always stay safe when foraging. You need to be 100% sure of your identification, 100% sure that your foraged item is edible, and 100% sure that you are not allergic to it (it is good practice to always try a small amount of any new food you are consuming). If in doubt, leave it out!