#FungiFriday: the biggest spread of mushrooms I’ve ever seen

Fungi Friday 16th October 2020

I visited the Surrey Hills in the North Downs last week. Autumn was pushing through lots of tree species, but the oak and birch still held green. I was expecting to find more mushrooms, judging by the glut of shrooms splurged across social media in the past week.

This is the moody view from Box Hill, one of southern England’s best known beauty spots. Box Hill is part of the North Downs, a ridge of chalk that runs between Farnham in Surrey to the white (green) cliffs of Dover. The North Downs, like its southern sister, is covered by chalk grassland and woodland habitats, overlooking the clay soils of the Weald which are interlaced with sandy heathland.

I was expecting to see more mushrooms because of the recent rain and the time of year (autumn, FYI). There were a few fly agarics (check out this great thread on Twitter) but not much else. Perhaps London’s famous gangs of illegal foragers had got the train down and taken EVERYTHING.

I don’t think the foraging fyrd had been by, because these parasols were getting ready in the grasslands. Also I don’t know if they even exist to be honest. How it started (above).

How it’s going.

The amanita family were present in the form of what is probably a false-deathcap. The biggest hoard was to be found in an area of woodland, as you might have guessed.

In June I wrote a post about honey fungus and how disliked it is. It’s not really bothered though because it’s grown to be the biggest living organism on/in Earth (I think). This batch of honey fungus is the biggest spread of fungi I, have, ever, seen. The mushrooms are popping up from a widely spread mycelium in the soil.

Looking at the individual mushrooms I think this is ringless honey fungus because it lacks a collar or ring on the stipe.

Then again, looking at another spread growing around an old stump, there do appear to be turtlenecks going on.

My friend Jess was keen to show some love for the honey fungi. The decaying trunk the mushrooms are sprouting from should be a reminder of how important ‘dead’ or decaying wood is in the world.

I am currently reading The Overstory by Richard Powers. I was given it as a birthday present (and funnily enough also passed a copy by Jess) mainly because it’s a novel about trees. It’s a complex, multi-protagonist story that comes together around the clearance of ancient old-growth woodlands in North America. One of the characters is a woodland ecologist who gives evidence in court as to why old-growth woodland should be protected from logging. It’s a brilliant scene, and it has a quote in it which really hit home with me:

“I sometimes wonder whether a tree’s real task on Earth isn’t to bulk itself up in preparation to lying dead on the forest floor for a long time.”

The amount of life found in the decaying tissue of a fallen tree that no longer grows outnumbers that found in living trees. Yet deadwood has been cleared from European temperate woodlands to such an extent (hi Forestry, I know, you’re changing) that many species dependent on this habitat are at risk of extinction.

Honey fungus is just one species that creates deadwood habitat for insects, spiders and other species which depend on it. These deadwood invertebrates are the most threatened species group in Europe. If you can do anything in the space you have, be it a private or a public space, please add some dead wood. It will make more difference than perhaps you realise.

Thanks for reading.

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#FungiFriday: hedgehog mushrooms

Fungi Friday 9th October 2020

A couple of weeks ago I visited the New Forest and saw hedgehog mushrooms for the first time. There are several species of hedgehog mushroom in the UK, all being edible. Since then I’ve been doing my research to try and learn more about them. This video has been helpful:

In short, hedgehog mushrooms are difficult to confuse with anything else because they have spikes where gills or pores are usually found, under the mushroom’s cap. If you want to eat any wild mushroom you should be sure you have used several different forms of identification and are completely sure of what it is.

I was out for a short photography expedition (walk) at the weekend and I discovered some more hedgehog mushrooms. Their numbers were so healthy and the shrooms themselves were in such good condition, I couldn’t help pick a few for myself.

I used my penknife to cut the mushrooms at ground level. I then used the knife (as in the video) to remove the spikes.

This may help with spore dispersal and allow more hedgehog mushrooms to spread.

This is what they look like in the wild. The caps of these mushrooms were a bit mouldy.

I got the mushrooms home as quickly as possible. I didn’t have an air-proof container to put them in so time was of the essence. I cleared the rest of the spikes from them and washed them, scraping off any excess soil.

I had no idea of a recipe for the mushrooms, I hadn’t even planned to eat them. I fried them in some butter and garlic until they were lightly browned.

In short, they were delicious. I think they would work well with something like chorizo.

Back to the woods where the mushrooms I had no intention of eating were doing really rather well.

The edge of the town I live in has a lot of conifer plantation, once heathland, a sandy, acidic habitat. There is plenty of silver birch which means fly agaric.

This was the best specimen I could find, a veritable pondshroom.

The leaf litter is becoming so damp from recent heavy rain that smaller species are coming up. Woodland soils are incredibly rich in life and our footfall can be very damaging if not managed in sensitive places. This small mushroom (mycena, I think) is one that can be easily found at this time of year. The time before leaves fall is an easier time to find fungi. This is also because after the leaves fall the cold weather comes and mushrooms are held back.

My favourite find of the week, despite the delicious hedgehogs, was this pink fungus growing at the base of a pine tree stump. It took me a while to work out what this species is. Bizarrely, it took the accidental viewing of a YouTube video to learn that it’s called plums and custard! It is a stunning shroom.

Thanks for reading.

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#FungiFriday: 10 miles of mushrooms in the New Forest

Fungi Friday 2nd October 2020

I found so much for this week’s post that it’s a mushroom-packed blog!

The wait is over, the mushrooms are arriving. I had the pleasure of a 10-mile walk in the New Forest in September. It was a warm and sunny day. It was a special walk because it revealed two species I have never seen before. One renowned for its edibility, the other for its deadliness.

The New Forest is a National Park and Special Area of Conservation. It’s of European importance with places left like it in the continent. Its mosaic of woodland and heath is maintained by free-roaming animals owned by commoners. This in ancient land management practice which, around Europe, is often responsible for the conservation of rare habitats and species. The New Forest was established by William the Conqueror at some point after 1086 when the Domesday Book was created. Its old name ‘Nova Foresta’ translates directly to its current name. It certainly ain’t new anymore.

It’s also more heathland than woodland, an open habitat. ‘Forest’ does not actually mean woodland. It means ‘outside of common law’ or a place where Forest Law was enacted. Forest Law was implemented by the Normans to ensure recreational hunting for the aristocracy was protected from the foraging and ‘poaching’ of local people. Its enactments were often violent. The Vederer’s court still exists in Lyndhurst, where hearings took place regarding acts committed within the Forest.

The New Forest is home to lots of spectacular ancient and veteran trees like the hollowed out beech tree above. It has a feel to it that is unlike other places. It is spectacularly rich in fungi, or at least, compared to other areas of the UK.

Much of the land is owned by Forestry England and they discourage foraging.

The first fungus I found was in a car park, on a bank under pine trees. It’s cauliflower fungus, looking a little bit dry in the sudden burst of warm weather. This is an edible species.

In the buttress of an old oak was this beefsteak fungus, a bracket that looks like human organs. It’s an edible species that has also led people to call the police, thinking that a crime had occurred in the woods!

The most common species of the 10 miles was sulphur tuft. It responds quickly to rain and was popping up in lots of places. This is one of the most common species in the UK and is also toxic.

There was a good showing from the russula family (AKA brittlegills). This one had already been picked.

The crowded gills of russulas are a sight to behold. They are, of course, brittle and so break easily. The gills and stipe are always white or cream.

Unless it’s blackening brittlegill!

Deeper into the woods, this greenish species of milkcap was abundant in certain areas alongside the track. They were under either spruce or pine, shown by the needles here. I’m not sure of the species but they may be either Lactarius deterrimus or Lactarius quieticolor.

I think this is the same species, overcome with a blue-green colouring.

This is a wood or field blewit, which are usually found in grassy areas.

This is my first deceiver of the season, so named because it can be confused for others. I have rarely found that to be the case, though! This is a mega-common species and is also edible. It’s said only to be worthwhile in large numbers.

This doesn’t look great but apparently it tastes it! I knew when I saw these apricot coloured fungi that they were hedgehogs. This is a first for me. I looked for the spikes underneath the caps. They are described by professional foragers as one of the safest species to eat. That’s because they’re impossible to confuse with others due to the spikes and that all the hedgehogs are edible.

This is how they look from afar, note the beech leaves for scale. They don’t look like much.

Conifer mazegill is one of my favourite species of polypore or bracket. I love the velvet-like yellow edge to the bracket. It is a beautiful fungus. I think it’s one I’ve only ever really seen in New Forest plantations or heaths.

Fungi is an acquired taste. This is probably egghead mottlegill, on horse or cattle dung! Stay classy. It was alongside a road at the edge of beech woodland.

I wrote about the amanita family a couple of weeks ago. They were out in force in the New Forest. This is the first fly agaric I’ve seen this year. September is a great month for this iconic species. It has such a depth of cultural significance it deserves its own post.

The blusher is a common amanita which is so named for its pinkish colouring. I’ve read that it’s edible, which is weird considering the consistently poisonous nature of the family.

These are probably panther caps, a leathery-looking shroom. I’m not 100% sure because they seem too big.

False deathcaps were common in Mark Ash Wood, the target for the walk itself. It’s a beautiful ancient woodland with an old stream and wet alder carr running throught its heart. It was in the damp area, on a mossy tree root, that I found a special mushroom:

I had to put this out to Twitter to be sure. I think this is a deathcap, one of the most poisonous mushrooms in the Northern Hemisphere. Another first for me! That is a mushroom that definitely needs a post of its own.

Thanks for reading.

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#FungiFriday: my first stinkhorn in Bradfield Woods

Fungi Friday 11th September 2020

Autumn has arrived.

Last week I promised more of Suffolk’s mushrooms having spent a week there. That was before a visit to Suffolk Wildlife Trust’s Bradfield Woods, where the mushrooms were kicking off big time. It provided me with a life-tick, not an arachnid that will be attached to me for the rest of my days, but a first time wildlife encounter. I saw, and smelled, a stinkhorn.

Bradfield Woods is a National Nature Reserve. That’s a big deal. I have wanted to visit this place since reading Oliver Rackham’s books about woodlands, with Bradfield Woods being one of his most often mentioned, due to its ancient character. It’s a coppice-with-standards oak-hazel woodland. The oldest woods we have in England are woodlands managed in this way, with hazel trees cut to their base periodically and oak trees felled to be used for construction. The coppice stools can live for a very long time, as the coppicing does not kill the specific species of trees, namely hazel and ash in this case. The oldest woods are also the best for fungi because they have the most stable soil systems, despite the regular cutting of trees.

Bradfield Woods is a series of woodlands. English woods are small and often form a network of interlinked parcels, forests are large expanses of heathland, moorland and sometimes woodland. Bradfield Woods was saved in the 1960s (what is seen by Rackham as one of the most destructive periods for British woodland) from being destroyed for agriculture. But more woodland was lost at its edges, as the maps show, with this isolated chunk of woodland in a sea of farmland. This oak tree, not ancient, stood in a neighbouring field. The oak leaves at the top of the frame are in Bradfield Woods, perhaps willing it to return.

It was quite clear that we had visited at a great time because there were early signs that the conditions were right for fungi. The red-cracking bolete above was past its best, laying at the side of the main path. It’s a relative of the boletes, a Xerocomus species that is very often seen in oak woodland in August-September. It often has a reddish colour with yellow pores. In fact, the boletes and their relatives were out in force, released from a summer of lockdown:

This could be a suede bolete.

This could be another Xerocomus species.

There were lots of boletes along the path edges. It was reminiscent of summer 2016 when even in urban south London this type of mushroom was out in force.

Boletes are renowned for their edibility but it was still funny to see the squirrel claw marks in the top of this mushroom. I think this is probably the cep, Boletus edulis. The one everyone wants to eat.

I think these are another bolete relative, in the Leccinum branch, where birch boletes reside.

These gorgeous boletes were lying at the path edge ๐Ÿ’…

There was an abundance of fungi, something I’m not seeing down south in dry old Sussex. Note the smaller mushrooms surrounding these fallen shrooms, signs of a previous burst after decent rainfall.

A summer mushroom that pops up quickly after rainfall is the fairy inkcap. This explosion was at the foot of a dead, standing tree. Leaving dead trees standing is crucial to a healthy woodland.

They will last perhaps a day or two at best before deliquescing into the earth.

Dryad’s saddle is a reasonably common summer fungus, and an edible one at that. But I have never managed to see them in this bizarre early stage where the top looks so much like a mocha or cappucino.

Here you can see old and new dryad’s saddles. Dryad is an interesting word. It means wood nymph, but also means oak nymph. ‘Druid’ means ‘knower of the oak’, which relates to the ‘dry’ at the beginning of the word. The tree is an ash, not an oak!

The most impressive species was to come later. Once again, along the edges of a main pathway, I noticed an unusual fungus. As the cliche goes, it stopped me in my tracks.

‘This is a moment,’ I said.

The mushroom was a stinkhorn, a species which appears from a sort of egg-like growth. It has a suitably unsuitable Latin name of Phallus impudicus. Probably going to leave that one there.

This fungus is renowned for its stench. ‘Rotting flesh’ is how it is most commonly described. It attracts flies and, in this instance, beetles. They were all over it, but took cover at the base of the shroom when I approached. It really did stink, the smell seemed to me to be similar to roadkill foxes I have had to dispose of when working as a woodland warden. The smell lingered and, gladly, it reminded me on leaving this spectacular woodland of a a very special and unexpected experience.

Thanks for smelling reading.

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#FungiFriday: a quick guide to five edible mushrooms

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Fungi Friday 21st August 2020

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.

Here are five well-known species:

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Cep (Boletus edulis)

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.

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Chantarelle (Cantharellus cibarius)

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.

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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.

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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.

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Common puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum)

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.

Thanks for reading. Don’t do anything stupid.

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#FungiFriday: 5 reasons why fungi are good for us

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Fungi Friday 22nd May 2020

This week has been Mental Health Awareness Week. We all have mental health but in general many people lack an awareness of it.

In the UK this is not helped by hundreds of years of toxic interpretations of masculinity and the systematic oppression of women in society. There’s a grave stigma attached to even discussing mental health, due to centuries of extreme societal, political and, indeed, medical responses to psychological ailments.

In recent years, despite severe cuts to mental health services in the UK, the conversation has begun to change.

Nature, or at least our sense of it, has become a counsellor, allowing us to detach ourselves from societal roles and see ourselves as a single species in a vast web of biodiversity. Nature helps us to feel human. Fungi are a big part of that.

While this post is definitely not about hallucinogenic mushrooms or any such trips, dude, I thought I’d take the chance to share how fungi offers ideas that help me to cope with the stresses and anxieties of ‘normal’ life.

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1. Fungi and the diversity of life

Knowledge is one of the most important ways to overcome mental illness. For many people a diagnosis is crucial to overcoming a condition. In trying to cope with life generally I have found that small, incremental improvements to my own knowledge, especially around the natural world, can help to build a foundation of resilience through understanding. In a time when we are faced with the potential for a Sixth Mass Extinction, it’s important to appreciate that there is an immense diversity of biological life on Earth worth fighting for.

A big part of that diversity is fungi, it has a Kingdom of its Own. British conservationists are renowned for pummelling themselves with the lack of biodiversity we have. Yes we have lost wolves, bears and lynx, but we have an immense diversity of fungal life in comparison to other groups such as mammals.

In the UK there are thousands of species of fungi, in the world there are known to be around 100,000. Scientists believe there are in fact over 1million species of fungi with a huge percentage of them yet to be identified.

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2. Looking for fungi is good for you

Above is a photo of a fungi walk I led in 2017 for London Wildlife Trust. These walks had to be capped each time and extra dates put on (rock’n’roll) because the interest was so high. We are attracted to fungi by its mysteriousness, its beauty, the fact it feeds us, underpins the biosphere, and also that they kill us on rare occasions.

While opinions around foraging fungi are fairly divided, the act of looking for fungi can have a huge impact on your wellbeing. One of the most rewarding elements about spending time ‘in nature’ is that you are distracted by the largely artificial worries that we face in modern life. By that I mean the deadline you have to meet at work, the email you didn’t reply to or the fact you haven’t hoovered your bedroom for a month.

An appreciation of fungi can also help to deal with seismic moments in life. A recent book has shown how learning about fungi and seeking them out can help to overcome bereavement.

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Take the example above. This is a patch of sulphur tuft, one of the most common speciess in the UK. I used to pass this garden on the way to work every day. It was very manicured but these mushrooms had burst on the scene. If I were to anthropomorphise, I would say it was a big ol’ middle finger to people trying to control every inch of their gardens. Sorry if that’s you!

The act of looking is an act of defiance, of rejecting the status quo and seeking out something new. For me, what nature brings in fungi is a newness that will never end. There are too many species, too much to learn, even in Little Britain.

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3. Fungi feeds humanity

While you won’t find recipes on this website for anything other than life-affirming hiking experiences, we should remember that fungi make up an important part of our food systems. While wild mushrooms don’t really make much of a dent in that, the discovery of a delicious wild mushroom is a thought that can keep you going when the woods are far away.

I have only ever eaten one wild mushroom. It was picked by a friend in Czechia in a very large area of woodland. She gasped when she saw it, took out her pen knife and cut the cap off. ‘Are you sure that’s edible?’ I asked. She was crouched down, stopped what she was doing and glared at me: ‘I have been picking this mushroom my entire life.’

Nuff said.

When we got back to her house she battered it in breadcrumbs and fried it. It was incredible.

Fungi does also provide important meat-alternatives to help us to focus on consuming meat from sustainable, local sources. Mycoproteins make wonderful sausages and burgers. Fungi is also needed for cheese, beer, bread and wine. Now many of you would struggle to live without those things!

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4. Fungi = time in the woods

Every autumn I make sure to have at least one full day in the woods. I bring lunch, snacks, water and all the camera equipment I can carry. It’s a chance to slow down and tune into the rhythm of the woods. It’s better than I’ve made it sound.

Spending time in woodland is shown to improve our health. The air is fresh, the sounds, colours and textures give us a great feeling of calm. There are also chemicals which trees and plants release which support our immune systems.

Spending time in woodland also teaches us respect. As a woodland warden in south London I witnessed many people making their first visit to the woods and nigh-on trashing the place. They sometimes did that themselves, sometimes with their pets, sometimes with their friends. I remember one volunteer who had become an impassioned defender of wildlife at the wood, even though he probably did things several decades ago as a teenager, that he wasn’t proud of. Even when people are causing harm in nature, not through the devastation wrought by things like HS2, at least they are there and they can develop an appreciation of it. We all must learn these things one way or another.

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5. Fungi will save the world – perhaps us, too

Plastic is a blight on our planet. Fungi could help us to manage it and rid its waste from the landscape. Fungi is being developed as a disposable material to replace non-degradable or recyclable plastics. Fungi also has a role in the mass production of a bacteria that scientists recently discovered at a landfill, quietly digesting non-degradable plastics.

While fungi has an important role to play in these issues, it’s good to remember that in many ways, fungi are the world. Fungi have played crucial support roles in the evolution of woodland ecosystems, trees, plants and many more species. We should celebrate and attempt to understand as much as we can about this amazing biological group.

Thanks for reading, wishing you well.

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