If spring is about flowers, summer is butterflies and insects then surely autumn is fungi. Now that the damp autumn days are very much upon us so the fungi are springing up. We tend to associate fungi with woodlands and decay but there is so much more to them.
Some of our smallest and brightest fungi are species of unimproved grasslands, waxcaps can be bright red, orange, a pale pink or even a green colour. Waxcaps are fantastic indicators of old grasslands, perhaps meadows or more often now churchyards and lawns. They are not found in the pristine fertilised lawns that are a wildlife desert but those lawns that are a bit rough and ready, slightly unkempt but mowed low ready for the winter. Our gardens can be such a haven for wildlife but only if we allow them to be so. Another grassland species, the shaggy ink cap or lawyers wig, is a little less fussy thriving on verges, even well-manicured grass.
It is, however, true to say that many fungi thrive in our woodlands, more so in our native and ancient woodland but conifer plantations can also become speckled with the reds and oranges of fungi at this time of year. From the classic fly agaric, with its red cap speckled in white scales, to the bright purple amethyst deceiver to the tiny antler shaped candle snuff fungus; all and many more can be lurking amongst the trees. If you know what you are doing some can be extremely tasty however it’s worth remembering that others can be deadly!
Many fungi are the classic toadstool shape with a stalk and a cap, often domed. Under the cap are the gills where the spores are released, just as in a cooking mushroom you might buy from a greengrocer or supermarket. In some species the gills are replaced by a sponge like structure with tiny holes where the spores are released. Most of these fungi with spongey undersides are part of the boletus family (and many are perfectly good to eat). The large cep or penny bun is perhaps the most sought after for food, partly because you get a lot of mushroom for each one but there are many more such as the birch bolete and slimy capped slippery Jack.
There are other forms of fungi too, some grow from the sides of trees forming shelf like structures or platforms above an old tree stump. Others can form finger like shapes or look a little like shrivelled pieces of orange peel. Some are hard and dry others more jelly like. Some form ball shapes with the spores puffing out of a small hole that appears at the very tip. These puffballs and earthballs come in all sizes up to the football sized giant puffball.
So far everything I’ve described are the obvious, visible part of the fungus that is ‘fruiting’; a structure of some sort that is there to help release spores to spread and grow new fungi. This is but a tiny part of the fungus as a whole. Beneath the surface is a set of root like threads that can spread far and wide from the point at which the mushroom can be seen. This is the fungus itself, the mushroom just a temporary growth.
Now the thing about fungi is that they are not plants and nor are they animals. They form their own unique group of species in the ‘tree of life’. Many are, as we tend to think, associated with decay. They help with the process of rotting wood or the creation of soils but many fungi are also vital for plants to survive. Most plants and trees have associated fungi, some are parasites which ultimately result in the death of the plant, but others live harmoniously helping the plant to take up chemicals and nutrients vital to their survival. Without fungi we’d have an awful lot of dead wood in our woodlands but actually we may not have any plants in the first place. They are a largely unseen but a vital part of the natural world.