Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Fungi on trees’

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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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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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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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! ๐Ÿ˜ฌ

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 26th June 2020

For some reason I decided to write a weekly Fungi Friday blog in 2020. It might have been the worst possible year to attempt this. It’s true that fungi peaks in the autumn but some of the more gentle, milder and wetter months of the year can give fungi an earlier chance. Not so in 2020, as this blog has complained for the past few weeks, it’s been very dry in southern England.

A recent storm didn’t reach Sussex but did pass through London and seems to have given fungi there a boost.

I could blame a global pandemic for the difficulty in finding fungi this spring and summer, but the dryness has been the main problem.

There are only so many dry (literally) blogs you can write about the lack of the thing you want to write about. This week I thought it would be a chance to cover a species that is one of the best known in the world and actually forms the largest organism on Earth. It’s also ‘feared/hated by gardeners’. I seem to use that phrase a lot in this line of unpaid work. What’s the species? It’s honey fungus.

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The mycelium of honey fungus

Every time I take a photo of these ‘boot laces’, I always intend to file it somewhere easy to find. That never happens so above is a low-res phone pic of a honey fungus mycelium (the fungal network of hyphae, a root-like structure that forms the living, physical structure of the organism). This can often be found underneath the bark of a tree that has fallen down or that has died due to the impact of honey fungus. These ‘boot laces’ are also what represent the largest life form on Earth. That’s a humongous fungus, some 2384 acres in size.

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An Armillaria oystayae specimen is the biggest organism in the world (not this one)

That species isย Armillaria oystayae but it’s not the case of a mushroom or toadstool over 2000 acres in size – can you imagine how much that would stink when it began to decay? Because that is only the apple on the tree, whereas the mycelium is the living and breathing fungus itself. The fungi above had moved in on a tree that had been harmed by development, with likely damage to the roots, making the tree vulnerable. No one described the developers as pests in that instance. One suggestion was for the tree to be felled just because the fungus was present. That’s a terrible idea.

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Fresh fruiting bodies of honey fungus on an ash stump

Honey fungus is renowned for its parasitic potential.ย Armillaria oystayaeย is a ‘pest’ for foresters. I would argue that honey fungus, and other species like it, is simply living in a nature-depleted world where ‘naturally-occuring’ species diversity has been destroyed by industrial monocultures in farming and forestry, and development that does not take account of the landscape it is replacing. They are also just trying to survive and taking advantage of niches which are presented to them.

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A plantation cleared on a hillside in Czechia – soil will be lost to erosion as the roots of the trees die and tension is lost

If fungi have been on Earth for 1billion years, they have evolved in a much more species-rich biosphere, rather than one we dominate now, which, in the case of Western Europe, is suffering from a loss of ancient semi-natural woodland and the associated habitat mosaics and species. In this case I mean there are fewer trees and less dead and decaying wood, the latter of which is a vital ingredient in a functioning and biodiverse ecosystem. Honey fungus, just like us humans, needs food and somewhere to live. It just so happens that honey fungi eat where they live and what they live on. Sometimes they also kill it. Sound familiar? Just ask Planet Earth.

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Honey fungus on the raised rootplate of a fallen tree

The most common species of honey fungus that occurs in Britain is Armillaria mellea. In actual fact it’s an indicator of ancient woodland, which means that people can’t use xenophobic language around ‘alien invasion’ to explain why it could be a problem. An ancient woodland indicator is used to show us that it is over 400 years old in Britain and Europe. In my view, this is just another species which highlights our own ignorance – we think we can control nature and that anything which doesn’t stick to the script must be destroyed or is a pest. Covid-19 is teaching us in a tragic fashion that we were wrong about that.

It’s true that honey fungus has parasitic tendencies and therefore can kill trees through a process of starving it of nutrients, rather than the supportive biological process of providing the tree with things it can’t get (a mycorrhizal relationship). But as a tree inspection professional once said, trees are not a safety issue until we show up.

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Young fruiting bodies of honey fungus in the ancient woodland landscape of the New Forest

One thing that appears to work in honey fungus’s favour is its edibility. However, from what I know it’s only something that can be eaten in moderation and it does cause stomach upsets in some people. It’s definitely not a way of ‘getting rid of it’ from your garden, because the mycelium is there as well. And no one defeated an apple tree by eating all its fruit.

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What can you do if you find it at the bottom of a tree? The only advice I have is not to panic and do something that causes more damage. The next step is to learn to love fungi and appreciate that trees die too, and fungi is there to help create space for more life. Beyond the loss of a much-loved tree, the main problem is our own rigid views of how the landscape lives and dies.

Thanks for reading.

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