Kathleen Gerrard, Still Life with Yellow Fungus, c1936–9 - detail

Kathleen Gerrard, Still Life with Yellow Fungus c.1936–9, oil paint on canvas, 40.5 × 51 cm (detail)

A variety of edible fungi on a table evokes many memories – from happy weekend breakfasts to a holiday in Aquileia in Italy, where I admired a wonderful Roman mosaic depicting a bowl of brown mushrooms. This large mosaic floor is over 2,000 years old, and I suspect that the Roman families who regularly walked over it on their way to market similarly smiled at this appetising artwork.

Having recently worked on a report, the State of the World’s Fungi, for the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew to amass current knowledge on the subject, I now view these fungi with a sense of awe and appreciation. Fungi are not, as many people think, some sort of plant, but a taxonomic kingdom in their own right. In many ways, they are closer in their features to animals than plants. Their cell walls, for example, contain chitin, a feature shared with lobsters and crabs. More remarkable,

however, is the fact that many fungus species have properties that are useful to us on a daily basis. Drugs including penicillin, antibiotics, auto-immune suppressants and statins are all based on compounds found in fungi.

Fungi are also critical for breaking down organic material in global ecosystems, releasing essential nutrients back into the soil, and it is this role that we may well be thankful for in the future. Just two years ago, a new species of fungus was found in a rubbish heap in Pakistan decomposing polyurethane plastics in a matter of weeks rather than years. This could be an important nature-based solution to global plastic pollution.

So, the next time you look at a painting of fungi, please think beyond their taste, shape and colour, and appreciate them for their huge potential for humankind. I certainly will.

Kathleen Gerrard, ‘Still Life with Yellow Fungus’ c.1936–9
Kathleen Gerrard
Still Life with Yellow Fungus c.1936–9
Tate
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Still Life with Yellow Fungus was presented by Professor A.H. Gerrard in 1991.

Kathy Willis is a Professor of Biodiversity, the Principal of St Edmund Hall at the University of Oxford and a member of the UK Government’s Natural Capital Committee.