These days of lockdown have made me appreciate the places I’ve had the privilege of visiting in the before Covid times. Also, I haven’t been to the woods properly in what feels like ages and I’ve not found any fungi locally, until it was too late for this post. And this one is late!
In spring 2015 I went to Romania by train, something that seems like a lifetime ago now. My friend Eddie and I spent several days hiking in the High Carpathians spruce woodlands.
One of the areas we walked in was the Bucegi Mountains.
This was a quite touristy area due to the presence of a waterfall, but there were very nice woodlands flanking the main walk. Flowers like winter aconite were common.
There were some huge spruce trees, covered in these beautiful bracket mushrooms:
They are a species I have seen mainly in Poland, Czechia and here in Romania. They’re red banded polypore.
I didn’t have the right lens on to capture the scene, but the mushrooms were covered in what I think were fungus gnats. The gnats were mating en masse! Some insects are actually dependent on fungi for habitat. I’ve seen them roosting within mushrooms gills before. Quite amazing.
I found a red banded polypore which had fallen from a tree. I don’t know if it managed to look like a smiley face. In Covid times it looks more like a mask. I think I’ll stick to the ones my mum made me!
This week’s post is coming to you live from my phone. I’m on holiday, sans PC et laptop, blissfully. In fact, a friend has just sent me a pic of a fungus on WhatsApp, so it’s like a digital mycelium bristling onto life between my palms. Sounds so weird.
Suffolk is the stage for this week’s #FungiFriday, a county of underperforming football teams and myriad beautiful cottages. Not least the one where Harry Potter was born.
If Suffolk is the macrocosm, the National Trust’s Ickworth Park is the microcosm, where the fungi made their appearances to me in this week of weeks.
I only became a member of the Trust a couple of years ago but I now regularly visit their properties and estates because there are just so many in Sussex, compared to south London. I have come to know some of their employees and understand the work they do. I think there are few finer organisations in their sector.
In more recent developments their attempts to interrogate the role of slavery in their cultural archive makes me proud to be a member, alongside their commitment to welcoming everyone to their sites and properties. They are also exceptional when it comes to the conservation of and investment in ancient woodland landscapes, places I, like many across the world, have a deep personal affection for. In my view, The National Trust shows us that being rural and ‘traditional’ is no excuse for failing to champion diversity and inclusion, or to shine a light on the darker sides of British culture. If you feel like that ‘cancels your history’ then you won’t like my blog! 😬
Within minutes of entering Ickworth Park proper, I noticed an unusual growth from the side of a large oak tree. Seconds later it dawned on me – it was a fungus.
Upon closer inspection I found that this was a special fungus, one that comes to life at this time of year. It’s weeping conk, a bracket fungus that exudes the water it draws out from the tree/soil.
My companion approached this fungus with disgust but within 30 seconds was in complete awe of its caramel-coloured droplets. It goes to show how conditioned we are to find so much in nature disgusting, when really it is cause for fascination.
The more you look, the more it looks like dessert.
I even managed to get a bit of bokeh (blurred circles of light in the top right) in to garnish this special fungus.
Ickworth was an exceptional site for ancient and veteran oak trees. In my experience, this equals fungi. This is because soils are often more ancient, undisturbed and stable, where fungi thrive along with all the other organisms they interlink with. The above was one of the larger old oaks that we passed by along the main paths.
I said I thought the National Trust were excellent in managing ancient woodland landscapes and I flippin’ meant every word. One thing they understand so well is the need to plant to replace trees being lost now and in the next century.
Next week I’ll share some more finds from Suffolk, including an epic visit to Bradfield Woods. Things are popping up out there and autumn is showing its fruity signs.
This week I thought I would write a post answering the most common question regarding fungi – which ones can you eat?
Disclaimer: I am not encouraging you to forage without following a code of respect for nature, wildlife, habitats and the environment. Your desire to eat wild food is not more important than the thing you are trying to forage or the habitats those species depend on to exist. Learn your foraging rights and exercise them with restraint. Respect habitats and know what you are picking.
There are few other places to start with edible mushrooms. This mushrooms is known in Italy as porcini, America as king bolete, France as cep and England as pennybun. When finding ceps you’ll need to ensure they haven’t been eaten through by larvae from the ground up. This is done by cutting the mushroom where it’s attached to the soil and looking at the condition of the stipe. Ceps can be eaten raw in salads and are also good in risotto. I’ve only ever eaten them in restaurants. They grow in woodlands, plantations and on heathlands.
Chantarelles are a species I’ve only ever seen twice in the wild and I’ve never eaten one. I’ve eaten horn of plenty but they were a gift from Spain. This is the time of year to be looking for chantarelles (August-September). They are a yellowy-orange colour and look a bit like splattered egg yolk from above. People who reliably find chantarelles often have a patch that they return to each year. Not to be confused with false chantarelle. Later in the autumn trumpet chantarelles are another edible relative (that is a phrase you don’t hear often). I’ve found them growing on heathland.
Chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus)
I saw a couple of specimens of chicken of the woods this week, but the best time to find them is May-June. This is an easy to identify fungus which grows mostly on oak, but also on sweet chestnut and even yew. Often it grows on fallen tree trunks. Never, ever, eat this if it grows on yew. Yews are poisonous and the fungus will absorb the toxins. It’s important to know that some fungi absorb pollution, so be careful where you are picking things. They are best eaten when younger. This species is important for invertebrates so don’t hoover everything up. That should be the consideration at all times.
Amethyst deceiver (Laccaria amethystina)
This is a very small, common mushroom in woodland. Sometimes they are so small you completely miss them down in leaf litter. In 2019 on a single visit to a favourite woodland I found thousands of them growing. They are a beautifully photogenic species and when in good light they have a lovely amethyst glow. They can be found from August to November. They have to be picked in larger numbers to be worth cooking.
Giant puffballs are famous for the their unusual size and the fact you can, well, eat them. A smaller cousin of the giant puffball is the common puffball. This species grows on the woodland floor and can be found throughout the autumn. I often find them at the edges of footpaths, which are not great places to find anything you ever want to eat. I think common puffballs look like submarine bread rolls with their speckled caps.
Since March I have owned a bicycle. Living in Sussex, you are largely dependent on a car to get around. My bike is the first one I’ve ever owned, and I’m in my 30s. Growing up on a hill, it never seemed like something I’d need. For the first time this year I drove further to visit a special nature reserve in the Low Weald of Sussex: Ebernoe Common.
Ebernoe is a National Nature Reserve belonging to Sussex Wildlife Trust (SWT). It’s a very special place for bats and is rich in all kinds of fungi. It’s ancient wood pasture, with large meadowy areas dotted with trees. SWT don’t allow foraging on their nature reserves (from what I know) and so people should respect that. When I visited, the woods were very dry, as they were in the Wealden woods reachable by bike near where I live.
There were some mushrooms on the ground but most had dried up and split in the heat. I think the one above (a phone pic) is something like rooting shank. If it doesn’t make it past my phone, that’s a sign it’s not in great shape.
Something I wish I’d spent more time looking at and getting more than a phone pic of, was this fungal map of the world. This is a beech tree that had fallen over a footpath and been chainsawed across to re-open the path. This fungal effect on timber is quite desireable commerically, where it’s known as ‘spalting’. What you can see here are the zones of a fungal mycelium within the heartwood of the dead tree. It looks like a map of a country, perhaps the north-eastern corner of a nation like Sweden with its archipeligos. I’ve heard these patches referred to as ‘war zones’. They are certainly competing for territory.
Like so many weeks over the summer stages of this blog, I found lots of bracket fungi. These were almost only Ganoderma species. The fruiting bodies were sticking out of the old rootplates of fallen trees like trainers or ‘sneakers’.
I visited a heroic veteran beech tree that holds a gigantic bracket of the same species as above. This is a tree I visit in the autumn, when a huge number of species can be seen on it, as below:
Here I can see giant polypore on the bottom left, honey fungus in the middle and lots of Ganoderma on different levels. The softening of the tree’s remaining wood will provide habitat for a huge range of invertebrates and other life. This is a habitat we have lost so much of over the past 70 years, as woods have been tidied and aforested for commercial production. That seems to be changing.
Beyond fungi, into a different species group but one that behaves in a similar fashion, I found a few slime moulds. This patch was splotched like someone’s old melted sandwich on a mossy log. Slime moulds are not in the fungal family. I learned recently that fungi were only separated from plants in 1969! Well done humans, literally a billion years later.
Here was an older specimen of the previous slime mould. It had been broken into by something that was probably eating it. It looks like a meringue, to my eyes. Also looks like an eye.
It was nice to head out further afield to seek out some ‘shrooms. But I have become so used to cycling or walking to the woods that it felt weird driving. It’s not lost on me that nitrogen dioxide, emitted by cars, is driving declines in fungal life as it alters the chemical make up of the soil. This is also impacted by air travel. I will make an effort to keep my emissions as low as possible. In terms of finding fungi, one of the problems with driving is that you cut yourself off completely from the world. When you’re walking or cycling somewhere, you’re immersed. I think I know what I prefer.
I went on a bike ride to the edge of a large woodland complex on Fungi Friday Eve (AKA Thursday). I went in hope of finding that mushrooms, after a fair amount of rain, were bursting forth from the soil, fresh and bright, ready for their close up. As usual I was wrong. There was pretty much nothing, not that I managed to make it into the best areas, it’s quite a trek. I did find some fungi though, a cluster of giant brackets that are there all year round:
This is probably artist’s bracket or something similar. They live on decaying wood in living or dead trees. They are an important controllers of tree species and contribute therefore greatly to tree diversity in woodlands. Unlike what you might think, their presence does not always mean the tree is dying or that they are harming the tree.
Birch polypore is a nice example of a tree-controller, a species which is commonly seen on birch. It has a fantastic scientific name – Piptoporus betulinus! It’s also known as razor strop, probably because people once used it to sharpen their knives (which were a day-to-day essential) in the way that you might use a piece of leather. That connection between people and fungi is one I think it’s sad we’ve lost. I wonder, is this still a living connection anywhere else in the world today?
Bracket fungi are something we’re losing from the wooded landscapes of Europe largely from the explosion of forestry in the past 100 years and an intensification of woodland management. The oldest woodlands I’ve ever been to (I know that doesn’t mean much) were covered in dead or decaying trees with large brackets. The Bavarian Forest, as seen above, was a fine example.
One reason why we have less brackets is because large trees have not been left to live their lives to the full and beyond. Most trees in forests have a target age and size, bracket fungi are a pest in those places, not that most trees would ever get to the age where substantial brackets could develop.
In the intensively managed woods of places like Czechia, it’s only a fallen tree stump that will give a home for a bracket.
Possibly the most bracket-rich landscape I’ve visited is Białowieża Forest in Poland, famed for its ancient stretches of woodland and rich diversity of tree species, said never to have been logged. Not even by the Nazis invading in the Second World War.
From experiences of visiting these rich woodland landscapes, a sign of brackets is often a symbol of a healthy ecosystem. The brackets are softening wood inside of trees which make a greater range of habitat niches for other life.
Saproxylic invertebrates (those which live in or depend on dead or decaying wood) are the most threatened species group in Europe. Many of these insects have important, dove-tailing ecological relationships with fungi. The stag beetle is a nice example, a species which is born with its own fungus used to decay wood in its wood-boring larval stage (we’ve all been there). Woodpeckers are also dependent on this wood-softening created by bracket fungi.
The Carpathians are a mountain range that cut through Europe, fizzling out in Czechia, reaching their most epic heights in Romania. They are one of the most incredible landscapes Europe has to offer. They also cross through the Ukraine, where the high beech woodlands are some of the oldest in Europe. Recently some of these woodlands were designated as a Unesco World Heritage Site. As so often is the case, outlying areas can be prone to exploitation through illegal forestry operations.
We are dependent on fungi and woodlands to make our world inhabitable. There need to be core areas of woodland which are allowed to follow cycles which are not interrupted or undermined by economic activity like intensive forestry. We can play our part in conserving things from afar by knowing who we are buying products from and where they originate from. That said, it’s not made any easier for the woodland or the consumer if ancient beech woodlands are being converted to fold-out chairs under a Forestry Stewardship Council certificate.
Fungi Friday 3rd April 2020 (or Friday 9th November 2019)
I can’t get out to anywhere that has mushrooms to photograph and we’re also experiencing something of a dry spell in Sussex. That means that this week I’m posting about my fungal highlight of autumn 2019, which took place on Friday 9th November. Consider this a bit of a sporting or cinematic classics TV show, until we’re allowed to venture further and any spring rain arrives. The inconsistent nature of mushroom fruiting bodies means I may have to wheel this out again to keep it going every week.
It was mid-November with autumn at its peak. The colours of the beech trees were at their most explosive. In the woodlands of the Sussex Weald, there were millions of mushrooms. They seemed to be under every footstep and fruiting from every fallen tree.
It was clear it was peak mushroom time. The bonnets were out en masse and many leaves were still on the trees. I have come to think that fungi hunting is so much easier before the leaves fall. The leaf litter created by oak and beech is very hefty.
I would also consider using hazel as an indicator. When those leaves start to yellow and fall, you know it’s going to be more difficult. Winter is on its way.
Bonnets are some of the best fungi to photograph because they’re often elevated on the limbs of fallen trees, meaning you don’t have to scrabble around on the ground. It’s also a very nice height for a tripod. A tripod gives you the steadiness to use slow shutter speeds which makes it so much easier to take pics in a dark woodland in autumn. Also, mushrooms don’t move!
What I am looking for in general is a mushroom that can be isolated. A macro lens gives a very shallow depth of field, which means that the focus is thin and the background easily blurs. This kind of thing is perfect. I don’t focus stack images (a complex process of threading images together which have different stages of focus) but this would look really good with every aspect in focus.
This is also what’s so nice about elevated fungi. You can play around and get some nice bokeh (the circles in the background). This is created by daylight flooding through the leaves – can you see the wash of green? I used a small LED light to light the gills of the bonnets. They look almost like paper or plastic to me. The idea also occurred to me that the white bokeh circles look like the mushrooms, too.
These are probably more bonnets. Again, taking a photo of the gills underneath can create a really beautiful effect. I could have pulled the bit of dead wood off to reveal the other mushroom but I fundamentally disagree with damaging habitats for the sake of a photo.
A species I learned last year was buttercap (or at least I think I have). This is said to be a common species. I like the fairytale shape of the stipe as it bulges at the base.
The woodland was entering peak autumn colour. These beech leaves still held traces of their chlorophyll.
It was a beautiful day to be in the woods. I can’t tell you how much a woodland stream adds to the overall experience!
With what is approaching a lake, you’re spoiled rotten.
Back to the shrooms. I found probably the biggest fungus I have ever seen, though you could argue it is several fruiting bodies fused together. I even added some in-photo text to help explain the situation to you. Very advanced. This is a bracket fungus that looks more like a ray. It’s probably artist’s bracket, a Ganoderma species. Below it you can see some smaller mushrooms, these are all deceivers. They were just about covering the entire area here. It was almost impossible not to step on one. By the way don’t worry that’s my hand not a mushroom burglar’s.
All in all this was my peak mushroom experience in autumn 2019.
No self-respecting person goes out looking for mushrooms in March. The mushrooms come to you. Or in this case (above), the bracket mushrooms will hover over your head and attempt to abduct you ala UFOs visiting nocturnal fields in the southern states of the USA. I’m unsure of what this bracket fungus is but it is probably the funniest. I actually ‘laughed out loud’. It’s growing from a poplar in a wetland reserve in the Sussex Weald. If you look closely enough it also looks like a grumpy frog.
This great spotted woodpecker was looking for his lunch nearby. Thankfully his attempt to fool me into thinking he was a bracket fungus didn’t work. It got more weird:
Alongside what is known in Sussex as a ‘gill’, a stream rushing through woodland, I found this horror. Now I’m unsure whether this is the jellied remains of an old bracket fungus or simply the remains of a jelly fungus. It could also be something far worse. I prodded it with a twig and it jiggled, so I would go with it being a jelly fungus. It was delicious. Kidding, it wasn’t. As in, I didn’t eat it.
The only fungal wow moment of the past week has been this encounter with splitgill fungus growing from a pine tree. This was a plantation of thousands of pine trees with very little variety in structure, tree species or ground flora. Keep an eye out for my next Sussex Weald post on that. These mushrooms stood out like many sore thumbs.
The lichenised fungi also provided a rather artistic sight. I think this is a species of poplar. It has crustose lichens growing around the trunk. In a tweet the British Lichen Society pointed out that this is evidence that trees grow outward rather than upward. Why is this? It’s because trees are constantly putting on new layers of wood internally, behind the bark. These layers of tissue form the static mass of the tree. It is in effect a kind of waste product but it gives the tree some structure.
Take this stunning dead oak which was also seen on the same day as the lichens. The bark is falling away from the tree as it decays (thanks to fungi in part) and the layers of wood internally are exposed.
All that, from the fact that lichens look a bit like bird poos delivered at high velocity from the leftfield.