I have a shadowy memory of desperately turning the pedals of my tricycle in a bid to follow a grey-haired man as he walked amongst the flowerbeds. Suddenly, the figure in front of me stopped, allowing me to catch up with him, lifted me out of the seat and then pointed to an object on the ground.

I stood fascinated by the two inch tall umbrella-like white ‘thingy’ growing out of a patch of grass near a small manure pile. The old man bent down, scrutinised the object rather intently and apparently satisfied with his inspection, plucked it out of the ground with words, “let’s go and ask your mother to cook it.” This was my first encounter with a ‘khumbi’ or the universally acclaimed ‘mushroom’.

As I came of age, my interest in gardening and everything that grew in it developed into a passion, but the memory of my first ‘khumbi’ always stayed with me.

I also came to know that all mushrooms were not edible and that those with bright colours were most likely to contain deadly toxins, which could kill an adult human being in minutes. Thankfully, edible mushrooms are now raised in farms under carefully controlled conditions and can be bought at no great expense from any large grocery store.

Information sources describe the mushroom as the fleshy, spore-bearing fruiting body of a fungus, typically produced above ground - on soil or on its food source. A mushroom consists of a stem, a cap and gills or pores on the underside of the cap.

Many mushroom species seemingly appear overnight, growing or expanding rapidly. This phenomenon is the source of the common English Language expressions "to mushroom" or "mushrooming" (expanding rapidly in size or scope) and "to pop up like a mushroom" (to appear unexpectedly and quickly). In reality, all species of this fungus take several days to form primordial mushroom fruit bodies, though these do expand rapidly by the absorption of fluids.

Historically, mushrooms have long been considered to have medicinal value and while traditional Chinese medicine has been using them for treatment of various maladies since centuries, modern medical research has begun focusing on them only since the 1960s.

Mushrooms are also known by the rather unsavoury name of ‘Toadstools’ and it is, perhaps, due to this that picture stories featuring fairies, elves and gnomes always have these umbrella-like structures as an essential part of their layout. A stroll round the garden in the monsoon season is most likely to reveal an assortment of this fungi sprouting in the grass. For those interested in gardening, this is a welcome sight, as mushrooms aka toadstools break up and consume garden waste.

I remember being told as a child that the umbrella-like growth dotting our lawn was a “saamp ki chatri” or “snake’s umbrella.” This was, in all probability, a bid to deter us from playing hide and seek in the luxuriant monsoon undergrowth for fear of snakes. If memory serves me correctly, this did not in any way diminish our daily forays into overgrown areas of the compound.

A subterranean wild mushroom called the ‘truffle’ is very highly prized for its flavour and truffle hunters are known to use trained dogs that sniff out this elusive and rare delicacy from its underground habitat. A truffle’s status in the culinary world can be judged from the fact that a Macao casino owner paid a record price of 330,000 US dollars for a 1.5 kilogram single white specimen harvested in Pisa, Italy, by a truffle hunter and his dog.

So next time dear readers, if you happen to stumble upon some toadstools growing out of some mouldy part of your garden, do not look upon them with distaste or scorn for this lowly fungus is an essential part of the balance that drives our ecosystem.

The writer belongs to a very old and established family of the Walled City. His forte is the study of History.