Mushrooms are extraordinary things. They are not fruits or vegetables and, like animals and plants, belong to a kingdom of their own (it wasn’t until the 1980s that the notion of there being more than two kingdoms was widely accepted). They are, in fact, more closely related to humans than plants. There are probably around 3000 species of larger fungi in Britain (when you include lichens, moulds and yeasts it is about 15,000) and worldwide the number of fungal species has been estimated at 2 million, only about six percent have been described.
Mushrooms are only the fruiting bodies of these incredible lifeforms, a little like apples on a tree. They form a massively diverse Kingdom and support most living ecosystems and range from infections, moulds and yeasts to the classic fairytale toadstools, they can spread for miles underground becoming the largest organisms on the planet and link plants together in networks known as the ‘Wood Wide Web’. They are all around us, and within us as well.
Their interaction with other living things has played an essential role in making our world. The coming together of algae and fungi to form lichens enabled the ancestors of all our plants to emerge from water and nearly all plants depend on fungi for minerals.
Most exist as multi-cellular filaments known as Hyphae, these grow from the tips outwards fusing and entwining to create the networks known as Mycelium and the majority of fungi live for most of their lives as Mycelial networks. This is how they feed - they don’t put food into their bodies, they put their bodies in their food. Each tip is exploring for nutrients and water and when they find it, chemical signals and electrical waves are sent to others in the network which then head towards the food source - the Mycelium makes changes to its behaviour. Scientists have experimented by removing the nourishment and severing the connections but new filaments appear and then head in the right direction…
Although some don’t, they can range across huge areas to do this. There is a Mycelial network in Oregon that covers just under 4 square miles, weighs hundreds of tonnes and could be as much as 8000 years old. It’s known as the ‘humongous fungus’. The fungi we see - mushrooms, moulds, brackets and so on are the fruiting bodies that sprout from the Mycelia.
Mycorrhizal fungi are species whose mycelia coexists with plant roots. A symbiotic exchange occurs, in which the photosynthesising plant feeds the Mycelium with carbon, and receives from it ‘in return’ nitrogen, phosphorus and other nutrients. The Mycelium then makes adjustments as the plants funnel chemical information from the air to the fungus, whose Mycelia bring similar signals to the plant from underground. This is the ecosystem known as the ‘Wood Wide Web’ as the network, involving many species, can be so broad and dense that trees can detect what happens to each other across long distances. It’s pretty amazing really.
Our local woods support a huge variety of species for you to go out and investigate in the Autumn but please do not pick any that you come across as they are a really important part of our ecosystems and misidentifying them could also be extremely dangerous as some are deadly – for example the Destroying Angel and Deathcap mushrooms cause fatal liver and kidney failure and have no known antidote!
Possibly the one of the most beautiful mushrooms and, luckily, fairly widespread is the Amethyst Deceiver. The cap, gills and stem of this mushroom are a deep lilac-purple when young although they fade to a pale tan colour when older which can cause it to be confused with the poisonous Lilac Fibrecap. Another easily spotted species locally is the Golden Scalycap which is noticeable growing in tufts on live and felled trees with a marked fondness for Beech.
We are also lucky to have the Magpie Inkcap in the area – common in deciduous woodlands, especially Beech woods but nationally quite rare. Delicately beautiful is the slimy-surfaced Porcelain Fungus found on dead or decaying trees and you could also come across the impressive bracket fungus Chicken of the Woods – it tastes like roast chicken but never eat anything unless you are 100% (99% isn’t enough) certain of your identification.
Also keep an eye out for the Saffrondrop Bonnet (it has orange liquid in the stem), the Sulphur Tuft (vibrant yellow in dense clusters), various Boletes (they have pores rather than gills) and the otherworldly looking Collared Earthstar.
The local woodworking industry also benefited from mushrooms. Fungi colonising dead or fallen trees by travelling through wood cells can leave conspicuous patterns favoured by turners. This is known as Spalting and Spalted Beech is much sought after. The fungi can have a number of effects ranging from whitened patches and marbling to leaving a wonderful tracery of black and brown lines through the wood.