Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Fungi Friday’

Fungi Friday 18th September 2020

The moment is truly upon us: autumn is progressing and the mushroom world is waking up once more. One of the true symbols of autumn is, in my opinion, the arrival of a dangerous family of mushrooms: the amanitas.

It’s been a hot week of it in southern England, with temperatures coming close to 30 degrees (c). Of course this pales in comparison to what is being experienced in America, which I am very sorry to read about. If you are affected I wish you all the best and that you can find safety. I know of a few fungi people on social media who have seen their favourite woods burned by the fires. I hope Americans vote out the Climate Denier in Chief in November and we can get on with the global efforts required to tackle the climate emergency. It’s happening now.

I visited a local woodland patch with low expectations. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned it(!) but there has been so little rain this spring and summer in Sussex. But woods are key resources of moisture, soil needs it to thrive and provide habitat for all the organisms which make it a living thing. Fungi are a key part of healthy soils. Though I wasn’t holding out hope for much, I was surprised to find that grey-spotted amanitas were out in force!

Now most amanitas are identifiable to me by their spotted caps, what are fragments of the veil the mushroom appears from, though you don’t find this as on toxic species such as deathcap or destroying angel. The most famous spotted amanita is the fly agaric, with its archetypal red and white cap, so significant to our species that it made it into Super Mario.

Here is fly agaric, a species which I have seen on social media this week, so it is now fruiting in southern England. I also found it last year in Scotland during September.

The grey-spotted amanita can be most easily confused with the blusher, seen above in the same woodland last year. This species has a pink ‘blush’ to its cap. It’s easier to tell the difference when they’re mature. Again it has the same white patches of the amanita family and a collar.

Away from the amanita family, I was searching around a fallen beech tree when I noticed a small cluster of mushrooms growing from the tree.

I pushed deeper into the undergrowth where the tree had fallen, down into the ditch of an ancient woodbank. There I found one of my favourite mushrooms to photograph, porcelain fungus!

This is porcelain fungus when it’s just appearing, pushing from behind a dislodged piece of bark. It is an edible species, which needs the slimy coating removed before it can be eaten. I haven’t ever eaten them. I have only ever seen them on beech.

Other finds included blushing bracket, which is growing from a fallen log across one of the paths in the prime mushroom spot. It has continued to grow and grow over the past few months.

This is a time of russulas (or brittlegills as they’re ‘commonly’ known) but I think the lack of rainfall is hindering them. I am guessing these two might be charcoal burners. A pleasant surprise in adverse conditions for our mushroom friends.

Thanks for reading.

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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 💅

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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Fungi Friday 4th September 2020

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.

Thanks for reading.

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Fungi Friday 28th August 2020

2020 has been a challenge for all three of us fungi photographers down here in southern England. But we are starting to see a change in the weather. Therefore, something is stirring in the Kingdom of Fungi. On a side note, did you know that the fungi was only given its rightful place, taxonomically distinct from plants in 1969? 1billion years on Earth and they were only just recognised as being separate from plants 51 years ago! Obviously scientific study hasn’t been going for a billion years.

One species which has appeared after recent rain is chicken of the woods. I’ve seen it in two different places, but the same habitat which means the species is responding to wider atmospheric change, not localised. You will see better shows from this pretty outrageous fungus, the rain had actually made it more like scrambled eggs.

As so often with chicken of the woods, it was growing on a fallen tree trunk, sweet chestnut in this case, and its orange colour flashed into the corner of my eye from the deep shade where it was growing.

My second major recent sighting drew me back to where I first found an interest in fungi: trees. Storm Francis has thrown their toys out of the pram in recent days and I was pretty astonished to see that some sycamore trees, young ones, had lost their leaves already. I am guessing there is a link between a lack of spring/summer rain and an earlier autumn, in terms of trees shedding leaves. That’s based on observation only.

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I don’t know if this is Francis’s work, but this standing dead horse chestnut has been brought down in the past week. It has some huge bracket fungi growing from one side, which will have softened the wood further. It’s important to remember that it’s rarely fungi that fell a tree, but the wind. Fungi just put in the groundwork. Great job.

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I am sure this is a species of Ganoderma bracket fungus but I’m not sure which kind. I cycle past this every couple of weeks nowadays and always stop to feast my eyes on these gigantic fungi. If this is one single fungus, it could be 15 to 20 years old.

For more about brackets, check out this epic I wrote a couple of months ago.

There probably won’t be a #FungiFriday for me next week as I’ll be on holiday. Don’t fret, autumn is afoot (ashroom?) now, so get ready for the good stuff!

Thanks for reading.

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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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Fungi Friday 14th August 2020

For a while I’ve wanted to draw attention to the amazing relationship Slavic people have with fungi, to shine a light on the troubles we have in the UK, especially in England. In ‘Slavic’ I include Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Czechia. Mycophilia (a love of fungi) also extends through more central European countries like Germany, France and further south to Italy.

Bear with me on this one, it’s quite a complex topic which I am trying to understand more about. Even though this blog is a long one, I intend to do more work on it in future.

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Zuzana Veverkova with baby Riza in Czechia

The only mushroom I’ve ever eaten was picked for me in Czechia by my friend and conservationist Zuzana Veverkova in a huge area of woodland known as Chriby. Zuzka covered it in breadcrumbs and fried it in butter. I don’t know what species it was, probably a parasol or an Agaricus species (like the larger white mushrooms you get in the supermarker), but it was absolutely delicious.

When she picked it I asked her if it was safe to do so. She glared at me:

“I have been picking this for my entire life!”

In England, there is an overriding sense of mycophobia, a fear of fungi. We also have a knee-jerk reaction to foraging, usually translated by right-wing tabloids as an eastern European criminal underworld stealing English mushrooms. It has been the case that people from other countries have been harrassed for foraging mushrooms in English parks, woods and the countryside.

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In England we live in a nature-depleted country and people are disconnected from more natural landscapes and the wild plants, animals and, indeed, mushrooms that inhabit them. Could it also be that in Britain, higher standards of living have (in theory) been maintained due to a lack of war inland (1066 was the last land invasion) and we have not been subjected to the economic boom and bust resulting from the shifting between revolutionary communist and capitalist systems. What I mean by this is that our supplies of food have been industrialised and well-maintained without a dependency on foraged food. Then again, the impact Covid-19 has had in Britain suggests poverty is far more widespread than people realise, or Government would like to admit.

I know someone who is in their mid-80s and is fluent in Russian, a veritable Russophile. When they learned that I had an interest in fungi, they showed me a copy of a Russian medical book they own. Beyond pretty grisly images of physical ailments are pages of both edible and toxic fungi. Another thing people commonly have told me on public fungi walks I’ve led, is that you can go to pharmacies in countries like Italy and get an identification of a mushroom.

In England, you will never get anything of the kind. I wonder why that is. One of the main reasons could be that Slavic nations enjoy far greater woodland cover. In England we have 13% woodland cover, while nearly half of Russia’s vast landmass is covered by woodland.

Look at this graph and you’ll see how wood-depleted Britain is. I appreciate it’s complicated.

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The Transylvanian Carpathians, Romania

In Britain our lack of reliance on foraging has led to a plummet in nature knowledge and species awareness, something which is improving. In Romania you will find some of the highest levels of plant ID knowledge among local communities, especially ethnic-Hungarians in Transylvania. This is because Transylvanian hay meadows, the botanically richest grasslands in Europe, if not the world, are managed by hand, cut with scythes and have been for a very long time. Knowledge is passed down from generation to generation.

My link to family who lived in a similar way goes back to my Irish grandfather who grew up on a farm in the 1920s in the West of Ireland. On the English side, it’s probably the 1800s when my family were sheep farmers near Hebden Bridge in Yorkshire.

I knew my Irish grandfather and I spent time with him in Ireland. But his generation moved beyond that old way of living without any whiff of nostalgia in later life, and he did not pass on farming or plant knowledge to me. Why would he? I lived in London and he spent most of his life working in construction. We didn’t talk about fungi, because he had dementia by the time I was involved with woodlands and he didn’t quite get what conservation was, more for cultural reasons of how he saw the land.

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Ceps and chantarelles at a Russian market: michael clarke stuff / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Some of the only people I know in Britain who have said they once ate mushrooms in a way that could be tied to a way of life, rather than a newly inspired, 21st century interest in nature, remember foraging mushrooms as children in fields. One of those people had an Irish mother who taught them how to forage!

Could a lack of knowledge be what drives that fear of fungi, like so many issues. If you have a basic level of species ID then you would know what is toxic and the uncertainty can be controlled. That fear also masks what is in fact a deep fascination, which is beginning to reignite in Britain just as we are perhaps losing our grip in the face of the climate and biodiversity emergencies.

Fungi don’t just appear in Russian medical books. I was astonished to see a thread on Twitter recently that showed a book by a Ukrainian illustrator Ohrim Sudomora entitled ‘War between fungi and beetles’.

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The thread was published by Anton Savchenko:

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As Savchenko notes in his thread, the species representation in the book is impressive. Looking at the illustrations I could identify milkcaps, boletes, brittlegills, chantarelles, morels and, of course, fly agaric. You can enjoy the book here. Unfortunately I’m not yet able to get a translation of the folk tale, but the pictures speak for themselves.

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Savchenko points out that the illustrator, Sudomora, was interred in a gulag by Stalin, possibly because of these drawings! I studied Russian film at university which naturally led into literature. I know that the poet Osip Mandelstam died in the gulag after writing a poem describing Stalin’s ‘cockroach’ moustache. Likewise, Isaac Babel, one of the greatest short stories writers you’ve never heard of, also Jewish, was murdered by Stalin. He killed around 40,000,000 people.

The good news here is that Sudomora survived because Stalin died and people were set free. The scary thing is if I was writing this in Stalin’s Russia I would probably be sent to a camp.

Returning to the English distrust of fungi, two people have written an entire book about this issue and the contrast with Slavic cultures: Mushrooms, Russia and History. Interestingly, could the word ‘toadstool’ help to understand the Anglo-Saxon worries about fungi?

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Fly agaric, the classic toadstool

As a quote taken from the book states:

If ‘toad’ descends etymologically to us from toxicum, then in English as in the Breton tongue a ‘toadstool’ in its ultimate meaning is a ‘poison stool’, and the idea of poison, rather than the toad, may have been dominant in the minds of those who first applied this term to the wild fungi in the Anglo-Saxon world.

The Anglo-Saxons ruled England after the Romans left around AD 500. The Germanic tribes of the Angols and the Saxons arrived as pagan cultures, later becoming Christianised. It’s interesting that cultures that will have worshipped nature may also be the root of a deep-seated fear of fungi. To an Anglo-Irishman, it kind of makes sense.

What do you think?

Thanks for reading.

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Fungi Friday 7th August 2020

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Thanks for reading.

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This is not an omlette

Fungi Friday 30th July 2020

Welcome to one of those weeks that is little more than a lament at how dry southern England is. This week I’ve been in two different woods and the story is the same – the recent rain in Sussex has not given much of a boost to fungi. I managed to zoom round a local woodland one lunchtime and found a couple of things.

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To give a sense of the impact of warm dry weather, even in the space of about ten days, check out the difference here. What is now a very dehydrated piece of birch wood was previously alive with slime moulds and all kinds of other life.

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It is mainly a matter of rehydration, however, and when the temperatures drop and more rain arrives, the show can go on.

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This is a species of Ganoderma bracket fungus growing on fallen wood. I only later noticed that a snail is hidden away in a nook of the fruiting body! You can tell I was in a rush. I wrote a lot more about brackets recently.

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This is smoky bracket, not an omlette. I have seen this small community of brackets growing over the past few weeks. Again, it was only later that I noticed the other life, in this case a resting fly.

I was pretty disappointed in this mushroom hunt but then it was somewhere between 25-30 degrees (Celsius). The area which I’ve mentioned before, that has been opened up, is now experiencing more trampling, including mountain bikes coming through. From my experience of woodland management, that was predictable.

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But some management that was really positive was the creation of dead hedges of logs and branches in a well-shaded area. This was where the mushrooms were hiding! I found a nice patch of oysters that were swamped/protected by brambles. This is a nice edible mushroom, not that I’m picking.

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I also spotted this small mushroom, such a joy to find something. I like its veiny-cap and the reddishness. I’m not sure of the species.

Dry times such as these make alternative topics a pressing need. At the moment I’m researching an article on fungi and Chernobyl, so stay tuned for that.

Thanks for reading.

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Brittlegill mushrooms

#FungiFriday 25th July 2020

It’s a great relief to be able to share some fungi from the Wood Wide Web this week. There has been steady rainfall in recent weeks which gave the sense that some summer shrooms might be ready to appear. At this time of year I’m looking for the early indicators of autumn’s fungal moment, which appear in the form of brittlegills or Russulas, in scientific language.

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A mixed secondary/ancient woodland in the Sussex High Weald

The fungi described this week are garnered from two walks in the woods of the Sussex Weald in West Sussex. The first walk was a short evening wander to a mixed woodland with signs of ancient woodland flowers like bluebell, but with lots of birch, hazel and some oak. It then pretty abruptly turned to pine, which happens quite often in the Weald because of the arrival of sandier soils where the Weald clay ends, and the prevalence of forestry.

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It was much more dry than I had hoped but mushrooms are tenacious things. This nicely illustrated a new fungal phrase I learned in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweet Grass (p.112 in the ebook). You can listen to an interesting podcast with the author about mosses.Tthe Native American language of the Anishinaabe describes “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight” as ‘Puhpowee’. And so was this very small brittlegill pushing through the leaf litter.

I have never really tried to identify brittlegills to species level because they are so numerous and similar. I would guess this species is the charcoal burner. But I could be wrong about that.

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This is one of the red brittlegills from August 2018 in the Weald, something to expect in August through to September.

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It’s a very dim view due to the light but my companion found this fungus within a fungus. It’s a species of oysterling. You can see a black springtail (or maybe even a tick?) on the left hand side for scale.

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The second walk was in the afternoon at another Wealden woodland I am getting to know quite well. I recorded an Instagram story guided walk of this experience which you can see here. If you have the Gram.

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Again it was well-nibbled brittlegills that could be found. This is probably the work of a small mammal with some input from a slug. I’ve seen grey squirrels pick these mushrooms, and spin them around by the stem and nibble down the gills. That interested me because grey squirrels are an American species. Brittlegills are also found in North America, so perhaps they are just returning to their roots. Does belittle the idea that grey squirrels don’t belong in European landscapes, the evidently do. Yes, I know about red squirrels.

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I’m sure these species are not in any way appetising for the reader. This is probably one of the green brittlegills. It looks a bit ghoulish but I was pleased to find it. All these finds were just at the edge of footpaths.

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A common summer mushroom is rooting shank, one of the toughshanks. ‘Shank’ has a pretty dark meaning in modern language, particularly in London, but it’s an old name for leg. That’s where the names of red or greenshank come from in the bird world. Americans call similar species ‘yellowlegs’. I prefer the olde Englishe names.

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Rooting shank is quite an abrupt shroom, it just shows up where it likes. You can find it from now through to September from the woodland floor to stumps and buttresses of trees. This dream of a shroom was in the White Carpathian mountains in the borders of Czechia/Slovakia but I first saw it in urban south-east London.

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It’s not a fungus, but this dog vomit slime mould was a lovely find (believe it or not). This amazing video gives a much better explanation of what this slime mould is up to:

I have recently learned that slime moulds have memory!

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It was only after taking this photo of the slime mould’s birch log that I realised how much was happening. You can see the early stages of small polypore fungi moving in from the outer edge as the wood degrades. I think the greyish blobs next to the slime mould may be Lycogola species, sometimes known as wolf’s milk. Lyco means wolf. The puffballs, Lycoperdon mean ‘wolf’s fart’. Oh dear. And we don’t even have wolves in the UK anymore, just in Downing Street, LOL!

Thanks for reading.

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King Alfred (not a hunter gatherer) burning a woman’s cakes © BBC Horrible Histories

Fungi Friday 17th July 2020

I have been taking an online archaeology course through the website FutureLearn. You can imagine my sheer delight when one of the sections was focused on, you guessed it, FUNGI!

The course explores the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) archaeological site of Star Carr in Yorkshire. The fungi section of the course covers the species discovered at the site and what they might have been used for by the people living there between 15,000 and 5,000 years ago.

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Image of the Excavation site Star Carr located in North Yorkshire England. The image is a reconstruction Alan Sorrell’s reconstruction of Star Carr in 1951, Illustrated London News 3 (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Mesolithic followed the Paleaeolithic (Old Stone Age) in 13,000BC, ending with the Neolithic (New Stone Age) around 5,000BC.

The Neolithic is seen as the period where human populations became more settled after the development of farming. These agricultural developments are what gave us much of the world we live in today. Current European farming techniques originated in the Middle East, slowly spreading west to replace the old hunting and gathering of the Mesolithic.

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Map of the spread of Neolithic farming cultures in Europe, dates in year BCE (via Wikimedia Commons)

But this isn’t Farmy Friday, so let’s get back to the pre-agricultural times when mushrooms were a key resource.

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King Alfred’s cakes

King Alfred’s cakes

The fungal finds at Star Carr have produced specimens of hoof fungus, willow bracket and birch polypore. This doesn’t include the species known as crampballs, King Alfred’s cakes, or in scientific language Daldinia concentrica. From experience, this is the fungus that people in Britain today most recognise as one which can be used in the process of making fire. This is probably because of the recent boom in bushcraft. The fungus gets its most evocative name of King Alfred’s cakes after an English folk story.

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To people outside the UK or without a grasp of English history, this name is quite meaningless. It is based on the tale of King Alfred who was exiled in the Somerset Levels during the Viking invasion of Winchester. Alfred failed to keep an eye on a woman’s loaves of bread that were on the fire and they burned. It is said that she had no idea he was the king, so far removed was he from his throne. Don’t worry, he eventually came back and pushed the Danes away a bit and established England.

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Birch polypore

Birch polypore

Last week I donated 1000 of my own words to the cause of bracket fungi. The findings from Star Carr have taught me about how these fungi were used by our ancient ancestors. Perhaps most interestingly, the fungi found were largely there because they had been foraged from elsewhere. Star Carr is a site next to a lake, so any woodland surrounding it will have been wet and it’s likely the people living there travelled to other places to gather fungi. There is evidence of the trading of ornaments and other items from across Europe, so people were not confined to the area itself in the way we live now.

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Birch polypore in winter, West Sussex

Birch polypore or razorstrop fungus haunts me out there in the woods. It is the one that catches the corner of my eye and fools me into thinking it’s autumn. It is a very common species where it acts to control population density. It plays a crucial ecological role in that it breaks birch trees down into nutrients and minerals, and therefore a substrate which can become soil. Fungi in woodlands are life-giving organisms. As a resource it was once used to sharpen tools in the manner of a leather strop, but it is also very useful in its ability to burn slowly and for long periods. This would have been crucial for people who were travelling and needed to make regular camps as we know Mesolithic peoples did.

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Birch trees coming into leaf in West Sussex

Birch trees

Birch is an incredible resource. Like fungi, it can be used to make fire. There is no doubt that birch will have been used by hunter-gatherers for this purpose. The bark was used to make slippers, matting, boxes, even canoes. At Star Carr birch bark rolls were discovered. The evidence is that they were cut from a tree and would have been used as torches. The ‘tar’ inside birch bark could have been extracted and used to secure flint arrow heads. Nowadays it’s known for being able to make birch wine when the sap begins to run in spring.

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The Bavarian Forest

Hoof fungus and hunter gatherers

The image above is of a dead beech tree covered in bracket fungi. Hoof fungus, so named because it looks like a horse’s hoof, appears to be a key species in Mesolithic Europe. It’s present across the Northern Hemisphere so it will also have been of use to Native American peoples. It has another common name of tinder fungus. An important material deriving from hoof fungus is amadou. This is the spongy inside of hoof fungus that can be used to make embers. The video below by the team at Star Carr shows how it can be used, along with pyrite, to make a fire. This is exactly what people in Mesolithic times would have done.

It just goes to show how resourceful people were in the Stone Age. It also reminds us of how important fungi has been to us, not just on the ecological level of recycling organic matter and its place in the woodland ecosystem. It helped to keep people warm and therefore alive.

Thanks for reading!

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