In 1962, a burnt golf ball arrived at the botanic gardens at Kew, in southwest London. The head of mycology, R.W.G. Dennis, may have rolled his eyes: The office had received another burnt golf ball 10 years earlier, which the submitter had claimed to be a “rare fungal species.” In that case the staff had got as far as trying to collect spores before they’d realized the hoax.
Twice provoked, Dennis responded in good humor. He published an article titled “A Remarkable New Genus of Phalloid in Lancashire and East Africa,” formally nominating it as a new species of fungus, “Golfballia ambusta,” and describing the specimens as “small, hard but elastic balls used in certain tribal rites of the Caledonians, which take place all season in enclosed paddocks with partially mown grass.” When a third burnt golf ball arrived in 1971, it was accepted into the collection, where all three balls now reside.
That creates a sort of Dadaist dilemma in mycology. By accepting the specimens and publishing a description, Dennis had arguably honored them as a genuine species. The precise definition of a fungus has varied somewhat over time; in publishing his article, Dennis may have been satirically questioning criteria that could accept a nonliving golf ball as a species. But what’s the solution? Some specialists have argued that fungi should be defined as “microorganisms studied by mycologists.” But in that case, points out mycologist Nathan Smith, we should be asking, “Who is a mycologist?”