A basketful of boletes 🧺

As seen on Friday 14th October 2022

In mid-October I met up with the Heathlands Reunited team at a Hampshire heathland in the Surrey borders. The meeting was to scope out a fungi walk I will be leading with them next month, and I thought it would be worth sharing some of the sightings. They will no doubt differ next month when autumn is well and truly progressing towards winter.

Very early on we found a perfect scarletina bolete (Neoboletus luridiformis)! This is one of my favourite species, having only seen one once before, on chalk on the South Downs Way in 2019.

Elsewhere in the bolete family, there were loads of brown birch boletes (Leccinum scabrum), most of which were in very good condition. Bramshott is a heathland so there’s a lot of birch there.

There were also plenty of Boletus edulis but they seemed to be mostly covered in mould after recent rain. This part of the Weald and Downs is quite misty and damp at times, so the mushrooms were probably quickly affected by the conditions.

There were lots of these red mushrooms that you may have heard of before. They’re enjoying a good year.

Other amanitas found that afternoon include what is either panther cap or grey-spotted amanita.

Less spotty amanitas included the highest numbers of tawny grisette mushrooms (Amanita fulva) I’ve ever encountered.

This grisette had fallen over. At the base you can see the ‘egg’ the fruiting body emerges from.

Along with those amanitas, the most common mushroom by a long, long way was the brown rollrim (Paxillus involutus). This is a poisonous mushroom which seems to be having a very good year.

Here’s a closer look at one of those grizzly bears. I first saw this mushroom when attending a walk from someone who taught me a lot – David Warwick – in Nunhead in SE London. He pulled what looked like a piece of rubbish from an old tree pit, what turned out to be the brown roll rim. I’ll never forget it!

As mentioned previously this season, the russulas are having a strong year. These lovely yellow ones, were appearing afresh from under the pines and birch. You can see a collapsed amanita in the background.

I have considered whether to try and spend more time learning to identify russulas. My focus is on learning families rather than getting obscure fungi down to species level. I am not completely a scientist in this and my aim is to produce photographs and write these blogs. It becomes all about how much time is available to you and what the best use of that time is.

As we finished scouting the route for the walk, we bumped into a group of women who were picking mushrooms. They had a woven basket full to the brim. From what I could make out they had picked a lot of honey fungus, ceps, a scarletina bolete and one of the leccinum boletes. We got talking to them and discovered they were Polish – I can speak a little bit, which I deployed here, always received very warmly! – and the woman in charge really knew her stuff. She said she was going to pickle them in olive oil and was happy with the slug-bitten state of that cep you can see on the lefthand-side.

I’ve written before about the place mushrooms have in historically ‘Slavic’ countries such as Poland. This is not something you would often see in England, nor to encounter someone with the level of confidence in their knowledge. Of course no nation of people can be generalised or defined in any one way but the English culture has become one of mycophobia.

If anything is to be said in riposte to that, it’s that the level of interest and intrigue in fungi in England is growing. We were here to plan a route for a public fungi walk, after all!

Thanks for reading.

Further reading: Fungi

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Giant polypore and more in the New Forest 🐎

There are certain species of fungi that are relevant to particular professions. Some medical experts may be aware of certain species of fungi that cause lung problems, or cheese growers may want a particular mould to improve their cheeses, for example. In the tree management world, there are several that keep people awake at night. One of those is giant polypore. Just like Jeff Goldblum witnessing a sublimly terrifying, carnivorous dinosaur appearing before him in Jurassic Park, a tree officer may look at giant polypore growing at the base of a tree and whisper the words, “Meripulus”. That’s its scientific name.

During a recent ramble in the New Forest, I was blown away by the sight of a large number of fruiting bodies of giant polypore (also known as black-staining polypore, but perhaps in America) alongside a footpath. Now, I’d seen giant polypore along this path before, where a number of beech trees grow, but I had never seen anything of this size and scale.

The image above reflects the spread of the fungus in the soil, or else along the roots of the tree. This is a fungus that decays roots, and from what I know it is a case of managed decline for the tree. Of course, we should remember that this is perfectly natural and it’s something that has been occurring for millions of years in woodlands. It’s a key process of renewal upon which biodiverse ecosystems depend.

I don’t know for sure who owns this small parcel of the New Forest, but I think it may be the Wildlife Trust. The great thing about having conservation charities as landowners is that they will make sensitive decisions around tree management more often than others, whilst always considering public safety. I say this as a Wildlife Trust employee with a woodland focus currently, and previously for a longer period!

This tree will go down at some point in the next few years, I would guess, either by natural course or by being reduced by the landowner, which is highly possible if there is resource available. Retaining standing deadwood is always preferable but not always possible.

But that is just one species, so let’s look at what else I found on this 9 mile wander in one of Europe’s most important woodland landscapes.

My first sighting of porcelain fungus usually takes place as early as June, but in 2022 it was late September. That to me is evidence of how dry it’s been this summer, with the hottest temperatutes on record in the UK. There should be more to come from this very photogenic species in the weeks ahead.

In south-east London’s oak woodlands it is proving a bumper year for beefsteak fungus (Fistulina hepatica). 75% of mature oak trees in one woodland had beefsteak in some form on the trunk. In the New Forest I found this wonderful example of the fungus, in what was the ideal state for eating. It looks so much like actual meat, it is very disturbing. This was growing on a large oak stump at the edge of a path.

This image doesn’t demonstrate spindle shank (Gymnopus fusipes) that well but they are fruiting in large numbers on oak at the moment. This is a root-rotter on a smaller scale to giant polypore, and it has a very potent aroma. It’s not unpleasant at all but is quite dominant if you know the smell.

I’ve written about boletes recently but this remnant cep (Boletus edulis) really confused me for a while. My guess here is that one of the nearby ponies or perhaps pigs munched the top off what would have been a sizeable mushroom. I identified it by the webbing of sorts on the rounded stipe. I didn’t see any others on the day. The livestock must eat quite a few of the mushrooms actually.

Elsewhere in bolete world I found a beautiful smaller species with very strong yellow pores. Here you can see that boletes and their relatives don’t have typical gills but instead pores. My guess here would be suede bolete, one of the Xerocomus species which is often found in this part of the season.

Here’s a closer look at those lovely pores. I tested them with my fingernail and they didn’t bruise blue, which you may be able to see in the top left of the photo.

Towards the end of the walk, my final find was this typical Agaricus-looking field mushroom that had been uprooted, probably by one of the cattle grazing the lawns. I am a bit indifferent to these grassland species and am wary in general of white mushrooms due to some toxic species like destroying angel, not that it would be found in the open normally.

In general, and following up on my long walk in the Forest in April, or comparing to September 2020, the landscape still looks very dry indeed. That will no doubt have slowed any mushroom fruiting. I’m hoping to return in October or November for the peak period to see how things are.

Thanks for reading.

Further reading: Fungi | The New Forest

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Cep-tember: reflections on foraging in England 🍄

In the early weeks of September, the first autumn mushroom boom hit. This was after a number of stormy downpours finally gave up some of the long-held rain to the land below, where us humans are most of the time.

I visited a local Sussex woodland in the second week of the month and was astonished by the change the rain had brought about. I have never seen so many blusher mushrooms (Amanita), which were honestly as common as muck, as the English saying goes. It’s also the start of the Russula season, with the first explosion of the brittle-gilled, uniformly white mushrooms. They are spectacularly beautiful to look at before the squirrels, deer, or slugs get to them, as they should.

Blusher mushroom

I was on my way out of the woodland when I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a perfect mushroom. It was perfect in appearance and is thought of as perfect for its culinary quality. At the edge of the shady path, under the branches of a young holly tree, was a cep (Boletus edulis).

Recently I’ve read a book about mushrooms and foraging that really got me thinking. It challenged my perceptions of whether we have it wrong about mushroom foraging in this country in terms of tone, and whether everything I thought I knew about what a woodland’s state would mean for its fungi.

More on that in a bit. You may have guessed that I picked this mushroom, took it home and ate it. I lived to tell the tale and it was indeed very tasty.

In recent weeks there have been Instagram posts showcasing hundreds of ceps in France and Russia and it’s made me realise something. One of the best times to pick edible mushrooms is in August and September before leaf fall and when there is still drier weather to be had. Wet weather also allows detritivores like slugs to feast on mushrooms.

Cep (Boletus edulis) also known as penny bun or porcini

Ceps in particular seem to be more likely to be free of decay and of insect encroachment into the stipe in drier months, which forms the core of the mushroom’s edibility.

For the past ten years I have remained fairly sniffy about mushroom foraging and only really ever eat wild mushrooms as a one off to see what they’re like. Part of this comes from working as a woodland warden for 6 years in an ecologically sensitive but hugely popular nature reserve. In my view and experience, I still don’t think foraging is sustainable in small city woodlands where the impact of footfall can degrade a habitat’s viability. There is also the fundamental fact that access to certain places has its controls, which are legal requirements in some cases. It’s also a sad reflection of the state of the English landscape which is said to be one of the most nature-depleted in the world.

Reading The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing made me appreciate just how nature-depleted we are in the UK, and how this is a cultural as well as ecological issue. I’ve written before about mushrooms in the Slavic world. Mushrooms seem like such a rare thing now that their picking is treated in numerous places as an offence, and this still with no solid evidence that picking mushrooms reduces an ecosystem’s viability or biodiversity. It does seem to come down more to commercial ‘theft’ than anything else, which you can understand if ‘organised’ groups are technically asset-stripping public lands. Mushrooms like ceps have a market value, something Tsing covers in greater detail.

As mentioned earlier, in small urban woodlands I think large-scale foraging could be harmful in that it can introduce lots of feet to healthy areas of woodland soil and seal it up, blocking the vital movements of gases like oxygen and CO2, fungal and invertebrate life, resulting in tree death. Soil is, after all, a living thing. It’s another reminder that woodlands with high visitor numbers do need to be managed for their long-term health.

Bradfield Woods

But disturbance of a different variety may not be so bad. It may even help to promote mushroom dispersal. Tsing’s book shows that disturbed landscapes seem somehow ‘better’ for matsutake in America, with landscapes damaged to a degree by industry actually being reawakened to different communities of fungal life. We are of course talking about wooded landscapes of much greater scale than most that are found in the UK. That’s a key element to consider.

Two years ago I visited Bradfield Woods, a managed coppice-with-standards woodland in Suffolk that also happens to be a National Nature Reserve. It was absolutely chock-full with boletes and many other species of fungi, including stinkhorns! Bradfield Woods is coppiced regularly for its hazel wood and its mature oaks are felled for timber (hazel = coppice, oak = standards). It was one of the most fungally-rich woodlands I have ever visited in central or southern England, again this was early September.

The management by the Wildlife Trust at Bradfield Woods is sensitive and sustainable, unlike most plantations where an entire woodland is effectively created from scratch (or from an ancient woodland, similar to how rainforest turns over to palm oil monoculture) and managed aggressively with large machinery that damages the topsoil. Then again, Bradfield Woods is not needing to produce toilet paper and other goodies for 60million people. It’s important to remember that that’s why plantations are managed as they are, for products we all depend on in our daily lives. This is probably an issue of globalisation.

The Mushroom at the End of the World has a lot to say about globalisation, focusing on the matsutske mushroom, one of the most economically important species in the world. Tsing covers the (human) immigrant communities in Oregan, USA and how their livelihoods depend on picking. It reminded me that the anti-foraging arguments in a lot of the UK media are along xenophobic lines, which Tsing does cover in regard to white supremacy in the United States. One English video lingers in my mind, of East Asian women picking mushrooms in a London park and being accosted by a local volunteer who is also filming them. Without pretending to be an expert or to define an entire region of diverse peoples, picking mushrooms appears to be a perfectly normal activity in East Asian countries.

Tawny grisette

There is also the interchangeability of the phrases ‘gang of foragers’ with ‘gangs of foreigners’, which I very embarrasingly said by accident in challenging the very concept at a guided walk once. This kind of language is far more easily accessed in certain British newspapers, which are hostile to immigration and refugees more generally and seek material to boost their propaganda. As you may have seen, a lot of people continue to express racist or xenophobic views in 2022, and sometimes people don’t realise how those ideas can surface in the most unlikely of places – a love of the nature deemed to be ‘ours’ and under ‘our protection’. These are issues and messages here that need to be considered carefully.

Perhaps the fears about foraging harm wildlife because our disconnection from these places has contributed to ecological decline. Perhaps it’s also that we need to accept our failure of stewardship – have we done enough to champion the positive use of our woods and their wildlife or have we not broached the topic meaningfully enough out of fear?

The last few days has shown that UK conservation charities have had enough of the Government’s total failure to secure environmental protections, at a time when access to nature and a rich ecological environment is crucial to societal wellbeing.

If sustainable foraging can allow people to connect more deeply with suitable green spaces, and to understand their ecology and improve their management, surely that has to be a good thing?

Thanks for reading.

More mushrooms

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