In June I did a long walk in the Surrey Hills around the famous Box Hill. The North Downs are absolutely fantastic walking country, being so easily accessible from London via public transport, and having some of the UK’s rarest wildlife, along with dramatic hilly landscapes and views.
The human (as well as the natural) history of the North Downs is incredible, with much of the North Downs Way coalescing with the Pilgrims Way.
Early on in this walk, I happened upon an area of yew trees and spotted some chicken of the woods growing. It’s always a nice thing to see.
Lured in by the sight of the fungus, I then found a massive dryad’s saddle growing like a gramophone from a beech tree. This is a fairly common larger fungus to find in June. It’s a summer woodland species.
Having moved round to look at the ridiculous gramophone fungus, I spotted what looked like dead growths of a wildflower or maybe a garden plant that had been dumped. After a minute or so I realised it was in fact a type of orchid: bird’s nest.
This isn’t a species I had ever seen before. It certainly wasn’t at its ‘best’, even though it lacks the colourfulness of other species nearby like common spotted or pyramidal orchids. There’s a really good reason for that.
It has a dependency on fungi. Its lack of cholorophyll is because it receives its food from fungi in the soil, which is also in relation to the roots of trees. The orchids were growing under yew but with beech in close proximity. It’s just another reminder of the role that fungi play in maintaining diverse ecosystems.
Away from the orchids, June is a good time to find chicken of the woods. We’ve had a very hot and dry spring/summer in southern England, and along the trail I noticed that a lot of the chicken had collapsed in brittleness. It’s not even worth looking for mushrooms growing in the soil, it’s just so dry. Fungi once again, or lack of, will show you that we are living through hotter and drier summers in southern England.
The North Downs, like its southerly sisters, the South Downs, are a chalky landscape. There are lots of beech trees in this type of soil. This means the very large Ganoderma bracket fungus is a pretty common sight on the many beech trees that are found here.
Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life has been sitting on my bookshelf for well over a year. It might even be two years. It almost certainly has fungal spores on it, probably mould. I knew it was going to be an excellent book that contains huge amounts of fascinating info about the fungal kingdom because I’d read… Continue reading Entangled Life: the book fungi have been waiting for 🍄→
Hi everyone, I’m pleased to announce that I’m leading a fungi walk in Dulwich Park (SE London) on Sunday 23rd October 2022: The meeting point is near the cafe at 11am. The walk will last around 90 minutes. The walk is free to attend and is funded by the Dulwich Society. It’s been such a… Continue reading Dulwich Park fungi walk in October→
Thanks for reading my 600th blog post! Prepare yourself, there’s a lot to take in here.
I’ve been interested in the history of Chernobyl for several years, mainly after learning about the ecological experiment created from the complete abandonment of the area.
If you have the chance to watch the TV drama Chernobyl, do it. It is one of the best TV dramas I’ve ever seen.
A recent documentary covering the story of the nuclear accident Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes and the resulting clean up, is also worth watching. A warning of course that both are graphic and disturbing in their own ways.
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986
Recently I have read Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy. It’s a very sobering account of all that happened in 1986 and how it all came to be. It’s so grim I can’t read it for too long without needing a couple of days off.
I’ve been reading it during Russia’s second attempt to commit genocide in Ukraine (April 2022), after Putin’s ragtag army’s failed attempt to take Kyiv and exact regime change. Russia are doing terrible things in Ukraine and the people responsible must be held accountable. I hope I live to see Putin brought to justice.
When are you going to get on to the fungi – you might ask? I promise you, we will get there eventually, and it will be worth it.
Soldiers are thought to have dug trenches in this mind-bendingly radioactive landscape as part of their special radioactive military operation. The Russian military were seeking to invade via Belarus in the north and eventually control Kyiv. Famously, they failed spectacularly, committing war crimes in Bucha, Irpin and other areas before having to retreat.
It was the case at the time around the disaster that the Soviet Union denied the full impact of the accident. In reality many thousands of people will have been contaminated by the radiation from the damaged reactor, but according to the official toll only 31 people have died. It may even be that the soldiers invading Chernobyl did not know that it was dangerous. It beggars belief.
Though those soldiers will not have fared well with the radiation, it was discovered that a species of fungus does not just do well with the radiation, it is thriving inside the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl. Thriving. Inside. I know…
Cladosporium sphaerospermum is that fungus. It’s usually found growing on the leaves of citrus trees, but as a radiotrophic species it appears to find favour in environments like the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Scientists are looking to use its ability to protect from the ill-effects of radiation to protect people in certain environments in space.
The unusual thing about the fungi found in the reactor was that they were not exisiting in spite of the radiation, but because of it. It does go to show that if there is a nuclear holocaust, some fungi will survive and contribute to the world that follows. That world probably wouldn’t have many humans in it.
Far more problematic for us humans is the fact that the Chernobyl nuclear disaster released extremely dangerous levels of caesium-137 into the atmosphere. This of course directly affected ecosystems across Europe where the radiation spread. Fungi absorb their sources of nutrition from their surroundings, making them likely to absorb radiation also. This website has taken the incredible steps of listing which mushrooms are more likely to become radioactive, compared with those which aren’t.
What this all effectively means is that any lingering radiation in the environment will remain in the ecosystem because fungi will absorb it. I don’t have the information but do wonder if there are some mushrooms which may never be eaten again within a certain range of the Chernobyl exclusion zone.
This article points to a very striking impact of the radiation in woodlands in the exclusion zone. Basically, higher levels of radiation are causing a build up of leaf litter and woody debris, because fungi are inhibited and unable to perform their core ecosystem function of recycling. This means there are higher chances of fires breaking out and redistributing radioactive material.
I bet you wish you never read this post.
Thanks for reading anyway. Solidarity with Ukraine 🇺🇦
Since 2013 I have been visiting a small area of ‘Celtic rainforest’ I know in Co. Mayo in Western Ireland. It’s hard to find much ecologically significant woodland in Mayo, a place of vast peat bogs, wetlands and where the woodlands are largely low diversity plantations of spruce and larch. Nine years ago I found one woodland on the map and asked my parents if they wouldn’t mind dropping me off there. In March 2022 I had about 30 minutes to check in on this real gem of an oak woodland.
I don’t want to give the name of the woodland openly because it is incredibly sensitive and is already experiencing the impacts of anti-social behaviour (fires, litter, human waste… not that you would head straight there to mess it up!) but if you want to know the details you can contact me via email for info (email@example.com). It’s one of the special Western Atlantic oak woodlands which the western edges of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland are known for. This woodland is rich in ancient woodland plantlife and is also good for fungi, as you might expect due to the long-term stability of ancient woodland species communities.
Upon entering I spotted the little red traffic light of a scarlet elf cup in among the moss. This is a species which thrives in damp and shady woodlands near water.
The woodland here is close to a large lough so it is never short on moisture.
I was astonished to find this naturally-occuring terrarium on the woodland floor. Someone had chucked a jar here and the mosses and other plantlife had colonised it.
After a few minutes of searching where I had found it back in 2017, I saw this. It is a seriously impressive species.
I was so pleased to find the tree lungwort again. It’s unlike similar organisms we find in the UK. It makes far more of its fungal elements than other lichens through its size and spread. Remember: in lichens, fungi provide the physical structure and fruiting mechanism (usually a cup-style spore shooter), while the cyanobacteria or algae are able to photosynthesise and harvest energy from the sunlight.
The oak trees in Celtic rainforest provide habitat for plants as well as lichen. There are often modest ivy vines trailing the trunk, as well as other epiphytes such as ferns and mosses:
Another thing I noticed was oaks leafing on the 31st March. This may be the earliest I have ever seen oak come into leaf, but the race between ash and oak is certainly a contest. The old saying of “If the oak before the ash, then we’ll only have a splash, if the ash before the oak, then we’ll surely have a soak” doesn’t quite play out from my experience. The very warm March we’ve experienced in the British Isles has possibly more of a role to play in this than traditional benign weather or climate patterns might.
One thing I learned from observing the other communities of tree lungwort were that the lichen seemed to prefer younger trees. I didn’t observe any on more mature specimens of oak. There didn’t appear to be a lot of oak regenaration but then again there was no danger of overgrazing due to the quite isolated nature of the woodland, its lough-side location and livestock being nowhere near.
Another lichen I observed was one of the pixie cup lichens in the Cladonia group but I couldn’t tell you the exact species.
There were many candidates for #StickOfTheWeek, so much so that there wasn’t even much of a stick to look at!
Last week I went for a walk in rather grey and glowery weather. It was in hope of seeing some earlier spring signs but was more a reminder that winter persists.
I found a small collection of glistening inkcaps, along with one of my favourite large brackets. Those are pictured here with my hand for scale.
Otherwise there were some small polypores (probably turkey tail) and a few lichens that had been enriched by recent rain.
Life is rather full-on at the moment so I’m not finding the time or energy to write something longer or more detailed. It’s also a mental thing, just don’t have a lot to say. Photography will be the focus in posts for a little while.
On YouTube I follow Simon Baxter, a photographer who has recently begun to do something most YT photographers don’t do – he has focused on ecology and wildlife in the landscape he photographs. I enjoy watching some YT photographers but my unofficial inner-ecologist tells me that many spend too little time learning to understand the landscapes they photograph professionally, with little interest in the biological life that depends on those landscapes.
Simon has posted recent videos celebrating the role of fungi in woodland ecosystems, an oak one in Yorkshire from what I can work out. He has spoken about his passion for the book by Peter Wohlleben about the connectivity of trees, which is underpinned by fungi.
Peter Wohlleben seems to have taken a lot of the credit for this scientific discovery purely because he wrote a book about it (one which I really enjoyed as well), when that credit really belongs to Suzanne Simard. The phrase was used for the first time in the publication of Simard’s pioneering research in Nature.
Finding the Mother Tree
Simard has recently published Finding the Mother Tree an arboreal-memoir about how she worked to research the relationships and dependencies between fungi and plants in old growth woodlands that were being logged in epic fashion by the regional forestry services. It is a helpful real-world account of some of the things illuminated by Richard Powers in The Understory. There is some suggestion one of the main characters in The Understory is in fact based on Simard.
Finding the Mother Tree is an absolutely stonking read which describes the battles, bordering on persecution, that she faced for challenging the patriarchal systems that dominated woodland management and theory of the time. She is up against men in positions of power who did not want her to do her research and did everything they could to undermine her. It should not be that men now receive all the air-time or credit for the work that Simard did herself.
Simard doesn’t claim to be the first person to learn of these vital interconnections, however. She quotes Indigenous people in America who had stated this to be a fact long ago. It’s what makes her book so enjoyable – it is an exercise in truth-telling:
Bruce ‘Subiyay’ Miller of the Skokomish Nation, whose people live on the eastern Olympic Peninsula of Washington State, had told a story about the symbiotic nature and diversity of the forest, mentioning that under its floor ‘there is an intricate and vast system of roots and fungi that keeps the forest strong.’
Suzanne Simard, Finding the Mother Tree: p.283
It reminds me of a story from an ecologist I met in Romania. In spring, frogs were found by scientists to be travelling down to networks of ponds via melt-water streams in Bulgarian mountain areas. This was hailed scientifically as new research. However, local people had known about this and disclosed it as fact for decades before this research had been completed. Local knowledge is often an untapped resource in conservation.
A special book
I read Finding the Mother Tree while sitting in the waiting room of a hospital, reading chapters about Simard’s breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. Her messages cut through more deeply and, dare I say, gave some comfort in knowing that sometimes people go through these awful ordeals and survive them. People sometimes even prosper in their wake.
Simard’s book is something special, for its ecological deep truth and knowledge, and for her willingness to share her own vulnerability as a woman, a mother, a partner and a scientist. The ecological/environmental/conservation movements are still undermined by the same patriarchal forces of Simard’s early years as a scientist.
The logging industries in Canada, to name but one nation, still log ancient, irreplaceable forests in times of climate and biodiversity crisis. Simard’s book must be read by more people to understand both the ecosystems we need to celebrate and conserve but also to understand what holds back the good work that needs to be done.
In England we suffer with a condition that affects many people: mycophobia, a fear of fungi.
If you ask anyone about wild mushrooms, you’re likely to receive a response highlighting the fear of being poisoned. Cultivated mushrooms are a staple of the ‘British diet’ but people have very little knowledge about ones you can eat from the wild, perhaps because it doesn’t seem worth the risk.
Another thing most of us lack is an understanding of where we can forage if we are allowed to. It’s no surprise, the situation is complicated and in general foraging wild mushrooms is frowned upon, regardless of arguments for or against.
It’s important to debunk some myths around the edibility of fungi:
Just because another animal eats a certain fungus, it does not mean it’s ok for a human to eat. Deathcaps can be consumed by other animals, whereas the result for us would be extreme
You can’t get sick from looking at, sniffing, listening to or even tasting a mushroom (on your tongue), but only from ingesting a part of a toxic mushroom. All in all, if you’re not an expert it’s just not worth a taste-test of a mushroom that could cause you serious illness
Some species which are edible still cause sickness in people, and not in a way that is predictable for some people
Meet the Amanita Family
The most toxic mushrooms in the UK are found in the Amanita family, home to famous species such as the red and white fly agaric. They have some extremely sinister names: deathcap and destroying angel, for example. The deathcap is common in the UK, especially under beech trees. There are other similar species like the false deathcap, however, but the similarity is not so close.
The destroying angel gets its name from the fact it’s pure white but deadly poisonous. This is where a lot of problems lie. People confuse the destroying angel for white edible species like horse or field mushrooms.
One of the more common cases of confusion appears to be people from countries in Asia who are new to places like Europe or North America, foraging mushrooms that look identical to destroying angel but accidentally ingesting the toxic variety. Tragically, this has happened in recent months after Afghan refugees ate deathcap mushrooms in Poland after being evacuated from Afghanistan. There is no reason why they would have thought the mushrooms would not be the same as the ones they ate at home. Knowledge is privilege.
Other toxic Amanitas are the panthercap and, to a lesser degree, fly agaric. Confusingly there are some in the family which are edibles, including the blusher and Caeser’s mushroom (the latter named for its favour among Roman leaders). Remember: no one without relevant expertise should ever consider trying to eat an Amanita mushroom.
The fear whipped up around these species is, unsurprisingly, exploited in the British tabloid press, with the following being printed in one major English newspaper:
“Foragers are being warned about an alarming abundance of Britain’s most poisonous variety of mushroom this autumn.”
There’s mycophobia rearing its head once again, you could argue. Anyone who knows what the deathcap’s features are is unlikely to ever mistake it for something edible. It’s about taking care and time and having the right knowledge.
That said, the impacts of the deathcap on the human body are very unpleasant. Though someone can eat the mushroom and not feel any effects for 12 hours or more, it will slowly be degrading the liver on the quiet and other vital organs, resulting in eventual death if not treated.
One toxic mushroom that is very common is sulphur tuft. Sulphur tuft grows in woods, parks, gardens and even the street. It’s known to cause mild to severe illness in people.
There are other deadly species which are very common, including such as funeral bell(!) and brown roll-rim. Brown roll-rim can even be found in urban areas, with the first ones I ever saw were in urban south-east London in an old tree-pit next to a main road.
It’s also important to know that species which are edible to some like chicken of the woods may cause mild sickness in other people.
The same goes for honey fungus, which is edible but can make people sick, especially after eating a certain amount of it.
This shouldn’t be seen as a guide to avoiding poisonous mushrooms so please don’t treat it that way, nor is it support for a mycophobic view of the outdoors. Always do your research and understand that you need to develop your knowledge over time. My interest here is the role fungi play in our lives, especially the debilitating fear factor – the mycophobia.
Happy New Year! Another pandemic year in the bag (yay) and a chance to look at some of my fungal highlights of the year that was.
I do appreciate that this post title does sound like I’m updating people on how my infection is going. That’s not the case.
My first fungi post was during England’s winter lockdown when we had to all stay at home again. Options for fungi photography were not great so I delved into my own wood-wide web. The post was about a favourite subject of mine, lichens on Dartmoor in SW England:
January 2021 also turned out to have a little mushroom boom:
Dark times continued through February 2021, but some brightly coloured jelly fungus provided a light in the dark:
Being privileged enough to work from home during the winter lockdown, I spent a lot of time at a computer. Behind me was a yukka plant that had spent the summer months outside. I was amazed (and a bit disturbed) to see that mushrooms were fruiting over my shoulder!
As winter drew to a close one fungus stood out in the woods:
A dry spring until April came with heavy rain. I finally worked out what common inkcaps were:
I gave two lockdown Zoom talks about fungi in 2021, one for London Wildlife Trust (video didn’t materialise) and one for Bell House, a learning charity based in SE London:
In July I found some very nice mushrooms and tried a bit of camera focus-stacking:
One of the few trips I managed to Sussex’s more remote ancient woodlands was in July:
A quick whip round an area of Ashdown Forest in August revealed some early signs of autumn:
I notice perhaps more deathcaps than I’d seen before when out and about in September:
A slow start to the autumn fungi season was dominated by these purple mushrooms in October:
One of my highlights of the year was encountering the stunning violet webcap:
At the crossing of October and November I was lucky enough to spend a couple of nights in Dartmoor National Park. It was dripping with mushrooms, a really special experience:
Thanks for reading and for your support in a challenging year for all.
The day after last week’s post, I headed back out to another local woodland to check up on the fungal situation. Building on the violet webcap theme, I was this time lured down an amethyst deceiver rabbit-hole. Thankfully, I was able to return from it.
I saw a tweet recently from the editor of the Inkcap Journal about how she could never find these mushrooms. The question was whether they are as bright as people say, or if that was deceptive. They are, of course, deceptive by name but also in their appearance.
I was scanning the path edges along a usual mushroom route I take through this woodland when I spotted a very small, dark mushroom under the birch and holly. It was almost black in the shade but on closer inspection it was one of perhaps 100 amethyst deceivers in the local leaf litter.
As I slowed down upon finding the mushroom, I began to see more and more. They were everywhere. I was careful not to step or kneel on them. I took some photos of them in varying states.
Herein lies this family’s deception – they are often confusing because they can look so different in anything but colour. Perhaps their name also derives from the fact they are hard to see.
These blogposts can also be deceptive. Though I have found things to photograph, we are nowhere near a mushroom peak. Things are not in full flow. The Sussex Weald’s woods look dry still, with heavy rain not yet enough to provide the water for full-on fruiting across the board. In other words, the mushrooms remain small and sparse, but there if you look. This brittlegill was exploding onto the scene like the shark from Jaws.
Something that can always be relied upon is a hard-wearing polypore. This fan of small brackets is the sort of thing you can find all year round.
There were more of the typical mushrooms, but mostly in the shaded areas under holly or lower vegetation. This crew of bonnets were growing in their hundreds.
On the woodland floor I spotted some very small mushrooms with conical hats. These tips look a bit like the famous magic Psilocybe mushrooms. After a bit of research I decided that they are in fact peaked webcap.
You can forgive me for seeing their similarity for liberty cap, the magic mushroom. In this photo you can see a small amount of the webbing which gives this huge family of mushrooms its general name.
Some of the more summery mushrooms were there to be found. This included the undisputed king of looking-like-they-just-burst-through-the-door, tawny grisette.
Another amanita to be found was this blusher, I think. It is quite difficult sometimes to tell the difference between a couple of relatives in this group, including the panther cap and grey-spotted amanitas.
The pinkish-hue and appearance of the stipe was enough to suggest to me that it’s a blusher, rather than a grey-spotted amanita.
I like the felty-caps of these two friends down among the old holly leaves and sticks.
Before making my way back home I happened upon another gathering of bonnets, again under holly in very shady woodland. It’s where the moisture is and therefore where the magic happens.
If you can, make some time to get out there and find yourself some mushrooms. You won’t regret it.
At long last some time in the woods! Get ready for a mammoth mushroom post to celebrate the start of the season. I am so annoyed to have missed UK Fungus Day due to work commitments (no time or energy to do writing, visit woods or take photos) and also I have at least one other mushroom post that hasn’t made it to the surface yet.
In south-eastern England we have finally had some rain after a very dry summer. iNaturalist and social media have shown lots of autumn mushrooms popping up, including the first fly agarics. This week I had the chance to check things out for myself, and was not disappointed.
I am fortunate enough to live near a large expanse of ancient woodland/wooded heathland which is part of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. This landscape is fungal heaven in places that have been wooded for more than 400 years. It’s dominated by birch, oak, beech and pine, trees that have strong associations with fungi.
The early signs were good as I discovered a beefsteak fungus growing at the base of an oak tree. This is a species which can be mistaken for body parts, and though it’s parasitic, its impact is said to work more slowly than a tree’s ability to heal itself.
Amethyst deceivers are a common species at this time of year, often found growing in profusion. I spotted this tiny one growing in moss at the base of a tree.
Recent storms had created a realignment of the woodland canopy. A beech tree had broken off in high winds, opening up the woodland to light. The concentrations of deer are high here, so it will be interesting to see how well the woodland manages to renew in this sudden clearing.
No, this is not an amphibian! I spotted this holly leaf covered in a species of wart-like fungus which I think might be in this family. Please add a comment if you know what it is.
Lurking behind a fallen log was what I think is a deer shield mushroom. I saw far more in the proximity of fallen wood, rather than in the open woodland floor. Perhaps the heavy rain recently has washed things away.
This mazegill-like crust fungus caught my eye.
This small polypore, which I have not looked to ID yet, was in fine fettle on a little birch stump. Not unlike a thought-cloud.
A reminder that it’s not just humans that enjoy fungi. Not that anyone is in any rush to chow down on this one.
This crust fungus interested me as it looked like a map of Scandinavian islands.
It’s always nice to find a bolete. This is probably a birch bolete as it was growing underneath birch trees. I moved the beech leaf but it fell into this position purely by accident. Lots of autumn happening here.
There were two moments during this two-hour walk that I let out some expression of joy upon finding mushrooms to photograph. I don’t know what family this, well, family of fungi, are in, but they are beautiful. I love to find fungi in this state, at this time of year, before the leaves have fallen.
Autumn appearing in beech, birch and bracken.
As a lone male visiting woodland, I am very aware of the impact my presence could have on women who are walking alone. I saw a woman walking and turned away to walk a different path to ensure she didn’t have to experience the fear of having some weird dude approach in a secluded area or pinchpoint of woodland. I also have my camera clearly on show. Sometimes I have considered getting a hi-vis vest with a mushroom emoji on the back. I would implore other men to consider how you are perceived in similar situations.
A pine tree had come unstuck and much of its bark had been pulled away. Looking more closely I could see some kind of root network. Now I’m not sure if these are aerial roots put on by the tree as it tried to consume its own decaying matter. Then again there was a lot of hyphae-like structure in among the roots, but the whole structure couldn’t have been all fungi. Here we have the foundation for much of life on earth, the partnership of fungi and plants.
It made me think of how Britain is faring at the moment. We cut our ties with our European neighbours in January 2021 (i.e. the wood-wide web), thinking we could grow taller and stronger alone. The truth is that everything is connected and we are diminishing in isolation because we need our nearest neighbours to thrive.
And then I found a mushroom I had never seen before – a webcap, probably violet webcap!
Seeing this mushroom sitting there took my breath away. It is a stunning fungus. The photographs just don’t do it justice.
Looking back at the photos I could see a spider using the underside of the cap as a place to find prey. It’s a smart move as many small insects and other arthropods are attracted to mushroom gills and caps.
One of the highlights of this walk, literally, were the spreads of yellow staghorn in the moss.
Their likeness to flames is really pleasing. I also love how they grow out of a tiny alcove in fallen wood as if from a little firepit.
Here is an example of how far and wide the little fires were burning.
A couple of weeks ago I spent some time in the Arun valley, my local access point to the South Downs. The Arun valley around Amberley is a crossing point (or perhaps washing point) of the Weald and Downs – where the river that rises in the High Weald’s most westerly point cuts a course through the chalk hills.… Continue reading The Arun valley: gateway to the unknowable Downs→
It has been a torrid spring and summer for street trees in southern England. We are breaking all the records for extreme heat and also enduring drought conditions. Street trees have it tough, not only because of the lack of rain but because it can be hard enough for them to access water anyway. That… Continue reading The cheeseburger fungus 🍔→
If you live in Britain you must be sick of hearing about it: England recorded temperatures of above 40C this week for the first time on record. Wednesday the 20th July was 230 years in the making, and it didn’t feel great. Why 230 years? The Industrial Revolution is described as beginning around the 1790s… Continue reading 36 degrees of perspiration 🥵→