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.

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#FungiFriday: looking for mosshrooms

Fungi Friday 23rd October 2020

I want to start by saying thank you to everyone who stopped by last week to read my click-bait post about honey fungus. The post had nearly 200 views in one day, which is a huge amount for this blog and broke the single day record. My blog could have nearly twice the number of visitors as in 2019, probably due to the fact I have had more time to walk locally taking photos and to spend time writing these posts. Otherwise I would be stuck in a car driving to and from an office I probably didn’t even need to visit so often.

I think the fact more people are working from home could be key to protecting local green spaces going forward. In the UK ‘lockdown’, as the period of late-March and most of April and May 2020 are known, millions of people discovered their local green spaces. If people value something close to home, they will learn about it and in their stewardship, nurture and defend it. I discovered fungi close to home, and I’ve sought it closer and closer ever since.

This week I visited a nearby area of oak and beech woodland in the High Weald of Sussex. I’ll admit it now, I was disappointed. This time last year I encountered many more species than I could find this year. I think fungi in Sussex are paying the price for a very dry spring and summer period. I did warn you. That said, I did find some small things that were happy to pose for a photo. Above is sulphur tuft, one of the most common species you can find.

This is black bulgar, a rather odd species that seems to explode in October on large fallen branches. The first time I saw this, it had appeared on the fallen limb of a massive oak tree which had come down that summer.

This rather unsightly mushroom did get my heart racing at first. I thought it was perhaps my first local deathcap, but really I think it’s the false deathcap. It has the classic Amanita bulb at the base. I think the colouring of the cap is wrong for deathcap and it has some of the brownish scales of the false deathcap, on the cap.

When the ground isn’t producing the shrooms needed at this time of year, I look to the moss growing on tree trunks. You can often find very small mushrooms there, perhaps bonnets (mycena) or galerinas. The moss holds on to the rainfall for longer, meaning fungi, some of which are parasitic on moss, can prosper. Let’s call them… mosshrooms!

This lovely little mosshroom had actually snapped but I rotated the image for effect.

This beautiful little grey-blue mushroom epitomises the mossy shroomlet. As you can see from the moss fronds, it was very small indeed.

One of my first #FungiFriday blogs was about candlesnuff fungus. It looks quite neat at the stage seen above, when it is first beginning to fruit. In dry conditions you can flick the white ‘wick’ and the spores appear as smoke from a snuffed candle.

A similar type of fungus was this yellow staghorn, a common species. It was growing down on a mossed-over stump on the woodland floor. That oak leaf on the right (I think Turkey oak, Quercus cerris) is so beautiful.

The most unusual find was in the raised rootplate of a rhododendron. From above they looked like potatoes. I am fairly confident this is a cep, Boletus edulis. It is, of course, also known as porcini and is one of the most sought after edible mushrooms. Foraging is not something I do commonly, so I left it there to grow on its merry way.

This scraggly crew are a common but no less beautiful mushroom – amethyst deceiver. They are easy to identify due to their colour and size and are a very common species in the UK. I do find that they are happier in older, more stable woodland. Aren’t we all?

Thanks for reading.

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#FungiFriday: September shrooms in Scotland, part three – Lochnagar

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Fungi Friday 1st May 2020

For another week the Covid-19 pandemic is keeping me away from the woods and therefore the shrooms. This fungal breaking news desk has run out of scoops, so it’s more like a sports channel airing classic re-runs.

I had been intending to post about some fantastic fungal hiking experiences (sounds weird) from a 2018 visit to Scotland but work and life stopped me. I do hope anyone reading this is doing well and that you’re following the guidance.

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These posts remind me of my uncle Joe Reilly who passed away in November. Joe was a Glaswegian by birth who, along with my aunt Marg, introduced me to some of the most beautiful places the UK has to offer in Perthshire, among so many other gifts. I would visit Marg and Joe in Perthshire as often as I could, often in autumn when going to meet my hiking companion Eddie (seen here) for a jaunt in the Cairngorms.

Joe fell for fungi like I did in recent years and I will always miss his WhatsApp messages with mushrooms he had found on Perthshire walks. We miss his thirst for life terribly but carry it on just as he did.

Last week I was sharing fungi found on a hike to the top of Ben Vrackie in Perthshire.

This week my final Scotland post makes me feel like a bit of a cheat. The post is built around an incredible hike led by the rangers of the Balmoral Estate in the Cairngorms National Park with only one serious mushroom to be found. But it was one special shroom, and probably one you want to eat if you haven’t already. I will soften that blow with some dodgy phone pic shrooms.

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I was visiting the Cairngorms for a Europarc Conference and there was very little time to get out on foot in the mountains and hills. Most of my photos looked like this one above, a phone pic taken while being ferried around in a minibus.

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I was staying in Aviemore and there were a pleasing selection of shrooms found right next to the pavement in the verges. This is a giant puffball in its early stages, part brain part, well, bottom.

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I’m not entirely sure what this species is, I thought it might be in the Macrolepiota/Lepiota family (where parasols are found) but can’t find a candidate just now.

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This is almost certainly brown rollrim, a deadly poisonous fungus. It’s growing out of ballast, which is no surprise as I’ve seen it growing next to pavements in south London.

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And behold, a very well trampled cauliflower fungus.

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Winner of the truly worst phone pic was this fly agaric which was absolutely belting it out from underneath a hedge in a residential area.

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As mentioned at the start of this blog, I was lucky enough to go on a hike to Lochnagar on the Balmoral Estate, led by a very nice ranger and a professional guide, who was also very nice. There were National Park staff from all across Europe. I spoke to one ranger from Iceland who would be spending her winter driving around the vast areas of her Park undertaking works to signage and all manner of other things. She was the real deal. Our National Parks are tiny in comparison to many in Europe, though the Cairngorms is the closest we probably get to some of Europe’s most rugged wildness. The Balmoral Estate is not a good example of that because of the intensive management to support grouse shooting. Apparently the Queen still drives around the Estate in her Land Rover.

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There were extreme winds at the time of the walk and we didn’t make it to the peak of Lochnagar. It was too dangerous. Though you’re unlikely to find much fungal diversity at these altitudes (1000m+) there was a familiar neon lichen on the boulders. This is Rhizocarpon geographicum.

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It took a real effort to actually hold my camera in place and take this photo. It was incredibly windy. This is Lochnagar. The peak can be seen in about the middle distance where a small cairn stands.

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At this point we were all told to put our cameras away because the winds were going to hit hard. They did, it was incredible.

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You’re probably wondering – where are the shrooms? But let it be a lesson to you, finding fungi can be really hard. Sometimes it’s all there at the side of the pavement, but at other times you will see nothing.

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At the point where our minibus was parked I could not believe what I saw. This is a cep, otherwise known as porcini or pennybun. Its Latin name is Boletus edulis. It is the most prized edible mushroom. This was the most perfect specimen I have ever come across. In the background is Loch Muick, with the classic Scottish rain, sun and wind falling in the background. I can still get a tingle of the joy of finding this mushroom, against that background, in such a stunning location.

Thanks for reading.

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