Fungi ๐Ÿ„: are there *really* mushrooms on Mars?

It’s been such a dry spring that I’m starting to wonder if there are any on this planet! They’re probably not on Mars but it’s a nice idea. Here’s more info on that story.

While I have your attention, allow me to explain some changes to the way this blog works. I am moving from the fixed days of #FungiFriday or Macro Monday. If you’re a regular reader you may have noticed that already. Now I’m making a monthly podcast, I need more flexibility with posting, and I actually sometimes have more to post about on both macro and fungi than just once a week. Also deadlines of Thursday and Sunday are not ideal!

Back to life. After a barren period (no morels for me), I did manage to find a couple of species on a long walk the other day, hiding away in the shade of a country lane. Get ready for phone pics.

This is turkeytail, one of the most common fungi you can find, distributed across the world. It is sometimes used to make tea and extracts are used for their anti-cancer properties.

Dehydrated jelly ear, sometimes known as ‘wood ear’

In Sussex we have recently had rain after a very dry April indeed. If this is climate crisis related, it means that the British tradition of April showers could be confined to the past. Once again, wildlife can point to wider issues in the environment which we are often oblivious to.

In that not-quite-fungi-but-probably-animal category are the slime moulds, of which I found one on the same walk.

This is a great advert for fungi and slime mould because it’s so blatant. It’s a species you see cropping up on social media time and again, with many people intrigued by its presence, often on deadwood. It’s false puffball, a slime mould. Looking at iNaturalist, April seems to be its peak month.

In other news, I’m giving a fungi talk online on Tuesday evening at 19:00 (London, UK time) for Bell House, a charity that supports people with dyslexia. There is a suggested donation of ยฃ5 towards their work. You can see the full details and how to book here.

Thanks for reading.

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#FungiFriday: scarlet elf cup

On social media in recent weeks one of the dominant fungi photographed has been a bright red cup fungus. This species is one of the most visually stunning, standing out like an elf’s sore thumb in a winter wood. I’m talking about scarlet elf cup.

I visited an area of woodland I have featured many times here, but a place I haven’t been to this year. I don’t know why, it’s close to home but usually requires a car journey because it’s awkwardly difficult to walk to. It’s a mixed ancient woodland with a stream running through it and heathland on its upper slopes.

In the UK heathland is a sandy habitat dominated by heather and pine. In terms, dry lowland heath is rarer than rainforest.

This woodland is managed with the support of volunteers. I don’t know the people who do the good work there but they clearly spend a good amount of time building what I know as dead hedges. These are barriers or piles of cuttings, branches, twigs and sometimes logs. They are there mainly to protect sensitive areas of soil where ancient woodland plants grow. It’s to keep people on the paths, which is best for the health of a woodland overall. These dead hedges also happen to be excellent habitat for wildlife like fungi.

From my experience in the woods and by looking at other people’s photos, I would say scarlet elf cups are happiest in damp, shaded areas. I would even say they are so keen on dampness that alongside streams and rivers is usually a good place to find them. This was a bit of a way from a stream but it ticked all the other boxes. You can see here that it’s growing from a small stick.

This is a nice example of this gorgeous fungus (not something you hear often enough). They grow on something similar to a stem but are a different set of fungi to the usual stipe-based mushrooms. Cup fungi are ‘ascomycetes’ (ask-oh-my-seets) and are spore shooters. ‘Basidiomycetes’ are spore droppers, most of them being the gilled mushroom types.

This area probably had hundreds of scarlet elf cups growing in this long stretch of dead hedge. It will be good habitat for lots of other species as well, including invertebrates and sometimes they’re big enough for small birds like wrens to nest in. The specimen above was snug as a shroom in a trug.

From what I know it’s an edible species, but I wasn’t about to clean out all these fungi from their wild habitat. I had mushrooms in my fridge that were a couple of days close to their best!

Thanks for reading.

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#FungiFriday: red banded polypore in Romania

Fungi Friday 5th March 2021

These days of lockdown have made me appreciate the places I’ve had the privilege of visiting in the before Covid times. Also, I haven’t been to the woods properly in what feels like ages and I’ve not found any fungi locally, until it was too late for this post. And this one is late!

In spring 2015 I went to Romania by train, something that seems like a lifetime ago now. My friend Eddie and I spent several days hiking in the High Carpathians spruce woodlands.

One of the areas we walked in was the Bucegi Mountains.

This was a quite touristy area due to the presence of a waterfall, but there were very nice woodlands flanking the main walk. Flowers like winter aconite were common.

There were some huge spruce trees, covered in these beautiful bracket mushrooms:

They are a species I have seen mainly in Poland, Czechia and here in Romania. They’re red banded polypore.

I didn’t have the right lens on to capture the scene, but the mushrooms were covered in what I think were fungus gnats. The gnats were mating en masse! Some insects are actually dependent on fungi for habitat. I’ve seen them roosting within mushrooms gills before. Quite amazing.

I found a red banded polypore which had fallen from a tree. I don’t know if it managed to look like a smiley face. In Covid times it looks more like a mask. I think I’ll stick to the ones my mum made me!

Thanks for reading.

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#FungiFriday: beard lichens

Fungi Friday 26th February 2021

This week’s encounters with the fungal kingdom (that I know about), are piecemeal. I am still sticking close to home, so no woods or wildernesses, if you even believe in the latter. You might think fungi can only be found in specific places, but we’d all be wrong about that. Let me tell you, fungi are everywhere. We’re the ones who are harder to find.

Stick of the week

On a walk at a local estate garden in the Sussex Weald, I found and nominated this lichen-encrusted twig for stick of the week. I’m not sure where the hashtag #StickOfTheWeek started but I think it has something to do with the illustrator @Bernoid.

It’s not common that I personally find any unusual lichens in south-east England. Usually you need to go west to Devon, Cornwall, Wales, Ireland or up north to Scotland. This massive oak tree had a sheath of moss growing on its trunk, which was then home to a colony of beard lichens!

I think these are a species of usnea lichen, species I’m more used to seeing in Ireland and on Dartmoor. I learned from a fellow blogger recently that you are supposed to say ‘on Dartmoor’, because ‘in Dartmoor’ means you’re in the prison. I’ve been to the prison museum and have no intention of being ‘in Dartmoor’ no matter how good to lichens are on its doorstep.

Velvet shank

On a lunchtime march from home I re-stumbled upon a gang of velvet shank (Flammulina). I was actually drawn to the site of the first cherry blossom of spring, when I spotted that this churchyard stump was still sprouting shrooms. This is fungus is hard as nails, in terms, because it has toughed it out through the snow and continued to put out fruit. It’s a prime candidate for snowcapped shrooms.

I have some exciting mushroom-related announcements to make in the next couple of weeks. I’m also about to start Merlin Sheldrake’s much anticipated Entangled Life. Have you read it, is it as good as everyone says? Maybe I’ll share some of it in the weeks ahead.

Thanks for reading and stay safe.

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#FungiFriday: when mushrooms grow in your house

Fungi Friday 5th February 2021

Get ready for bad mushroom photography. But first I wanted to link to this interesting Mushroom Hour podcast with Learn Your Land, that I listened to this week. Some very thought-provoking ideas around landscape conservation, belonging in the landscape and our own impact as individuals. Here’s an example of one of the Learn Your Land YouTube videos:

Back to the bad fungi photography.

In December, I was sitting at my desk, working from home, when I turned around and saw a mushroom growing behind me. This was quite unexpected. The mushroom was growing from the soil of a houseplant on a cabinet behind me.

The plant itself had spent the summer outdoors, so I expect the spores of the fungus have landed on the soil while outside. You can see that the stipe (or stem) has split, probably due to rapid growth and the heat coming from the nearby radiator.

Here is that same mushroom possibly a couple of hours earlier. It moved incredibly quickly through its fruiting stages.

That wasn’t to be the end of it. The following day I noticed more shrooms appearing at the edge of the pot.

This shroom family also moved fast. I think they’re a species in the very big brittlestem or Psathyrella family.

Didn’t I promise you the pics would be bad?

It’s probably not great having mushrooms growing in your house, and I fully expect a barrage of comments about how my house is going to fall down now from builders. All in all, however, I was quite pleased with the tropical scene on those dark midwinter nights.

Thanks for reading.

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#FungiFriday: a winter shroom-boom

Fungi Friday 28th January 2021

This has been a surprisingly good winter for fungi. One thing I have learned about following the stuff all year round is that it is everywhere, all the time. I knew before that fungi ruled the world, now I know it. Look at the blusher mushroom dominating this post and try and tell me it ain’t true.

Frosty the alpaca

December in southern England has been colder than we are used to. In the past decade some Decembers have been, on average, around 10 degrees Celsius (remember him?), with one Christmas Day rocking an incredible 16 degrees. Instead we have had temperatures around zero for longer periods and last weekend there was snow. It lingered in London, Hampshire and other parts of the UK but in Sussex, it didn’t. Oh well.

I should probably move on, I have a lot of photos to catch up on.

I learned a new species in December, thanks to an ID on iNaturalist. I was walking in woodland in the Sussex Weald, in my local area, looking for macro subjects. By chance I saw some small white mushrooms on a piece of oak wood on the ground. I have a new camera which can stack together several photos to make one which has a large range of focus.

I hunkered down with these tiny shroomlets and managed to work the image stacking, as seen above. These tiny white mushrooms are oak pin (Cudoniella acicularis).

On the same day, and on several following, I noticed the prevalence of blewits. The blewit above (probably wood blewit) was growing from some leaf litter on the buttress of an old oak.

Around Christmas I found some other populations in a local cemetery. It obviously was having a little winter fruiting period, or shroom-boom.

This felled fungus offered a good chance to show off the mycelium. The white fibres in the substrate of twigs and leaves, are the hyphae of the fungus. They are what produce the mushroom that we see above ground. These hyphae will be extracting the minerals and nutrients from this detritus and turning it into soil. Fungi rule the world.

In that same cemetery I found an absolute stonker of a twig. This is a species of oysterling (Crepidotus). From above they look like weird little white bits on a damp twig, but when you turn them over, they are beautiful. I always look for them in December when there is generally not as much to see.

Also in the cemetery I found this. What on earth is this? It was growing on the single lobe of an oak leaf, lying on the soil near to the oysterling twig above. This image is also a stack done in the camera. I think it’s probably a slime mould, so not a fungus, but behaving in a way that is similar of course. If you know what this is, please do enlighten us the comments!

While we’re on slime moulds, this is a very happy cluster of something like dog vomit slime mould. You can see its journey across the ivy leaf from the white trails in the background. Let’s leave that one there.

This one kept me guessing over Christmas. I found several of this species growing out of a standing dead pine tree in oak woodland. It smelled really nice, so sweet, just like chantarelles in fact. People on social media were unable to identify it, but the consensus was that it was probably false chantarelle.

You can see why people might confuse it with the real deal. There are several features which will help you not to make that mistake… Maybe another time.

I have been lamenting my lack of luck with the flammulina family, as in the mushroom, not a group of people. That would be a great surname though. My one true encounter with velvet shank, the most common of this family, was at a distance from a boardwalk surrounded by high levels of water.

This illustrates that point rather well. This is funny (only for me) because they are one of the most photogenic species you can find:

Velvet shank in January 2019

One rests one’s case.

While this toffee-like secretion may not be quite so eye-catching, it’s a new species for me. It’s cushion bracket (Phellinus pomaceus) growing on a blackthorn or other cherry family wood.

It’s probably best to end with a more appropriate species for the times. My walks are now close to home, in a town and into the rural edges if there’s time and light. On one lunchtime walk I found this colony of coral fungus from right next to the pavement. I have seen this before in London, at the roadside.

It’s even difficult to get photos of something like this because people are passing by and me lingering too long can literally force someone into the road to avoid me. So the photos aren’t focus stacked and they’re a fast food alternative to the slower pace I usually prefer for taking a mushroom pic.

Thanks for reading. Wishing you well.

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#FungiFriday: Lichens in Dartmoor

Fungi Friday 22nd January 2020

Last week I posted about cup lichens as part of #LichenJanuary, with a heavy focus on the West of Ireland (where President Joe Biden’s ancestors are from, wahey!). This week it’s anotherly westerly part of the British Isles that gets some attention: Dartmoor National Park.

Dartmoor is renowned for its moorland and rocky hillscape in Devon, south-west England. It’s famous for its graphite outcrops or ‘tors’ which dot the landscape. It’s a very wet place, another reason why it’s so boggy. All in all a tremendous place for lichens and other moisture-loving organisms like mosses.

One of the most famous places in Dartmoor is a small area of woodland called Wistman’s Wood, a National Nature Reserve near Postbridge. This well-loved wood is home to scraggly oaks dripping in moss and lichen. These are also exceptional places for lichens. The wood itself is known for its misty scenes, with the trees clinging on to the moisture in the air. That is only a good thing for lichens and mosses.

This bubbly-looking boulder lichen was growing on the approach to Wistman’s Wood. The threads in the lower right-hand part of the image are hairs from sheep or cattle which have squeezed past the rock.

Another boulder held a spidery community of foliose (leafy) lichens.

Mandarin duck with ducklings

Here is a rather nice example of a lichen-covered boulder in the river Dart. This is a female mandarin with her ducklings. This was in June and while rain isn’t unusual in Dartmoor in summer, you can see it has been warmer around the time of the photo because the mosses are blackened and dessicated.

Wistman’s Wood

The lichens in woodland like Wistman’s are found on rocky substrates and the branches of the trees. It’s interesting that these boulders are at great density in this woodland but not the same in the wider landscape. That is probably because the wider landscape has been cleared of woodland and then the boulders left behind, for livestock grazing. Woodland was cleared from Dartmoor long ago, mainly during the Bronze Age, from what I know.

This photo won’t display in portrait, but it’s an oak trunk covered in epiphytes – lichens, mosses and ferns coating the bark. This is the British and Irish equivalent of rainforest, or Atlantic oak woodland.

Dartmoor’s oak branches are rich in beard lichens, I think this is a species of usnea.

Some of the less flamboyant lichens, but probably more common, are these pore lichens. I think pore lichen is an American name, which isn’t used in Britain. I don’t really care and am always frustrated with the rigidity by which species recorders approach these issues. We need common names to encourage more interest in nature. I know Tyrannosaurus rex is a popular name, but Latin names do not capture the imagination in the way that common names do. Stinkhorn, anyone?

As someone who grew up in a city, cemeteries were some of the first places I began to notice wildlife. I think they are special places also because their atmosphere is so different to the rest of the built-upon or managed landscape. At Widecombe-in-the-Moor, there is one of the best lichen cemeteries I know. Not that they’re dead, they’re well and truly alive and kicking.

This cross is a dream. There are foliose and crustose lichens, and it hasn’t been tidied up by the cemetery managers (I don’t. The air quality is also excellent in this area, allowing for more species to find a place to live. Below is a selection of the species I found growing on gravestones in this cemetery:

I couldn’t let this woodlouse get away without being included along with these frosty fruiting cups.

Above is a really cool insect, a downlooker snipefly! I’ve also found this species on lichen-encrusted boulders in Western Ireland, a similar climate and landscape type.

The village of Widecombe has a large sycamore growing on the edge of the green. This tree shows why scyamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) is a good wildlife tree, because it can provide habitat for lichens.

It looks like a perfect place to sit and cotemplate the amazing lichens you can find in Dartmoor.

Thanks for reading.

Further fungi

#FungiFriday: pixie cup lichens

Fungi Friday 15th January 2021

This week it’s a continuation of #LichenJanuary. It’s a time of year when winter is at its deepest, more grey than snowy in southern England. In towns and cities lichens come to the fore. If you’re looking for something to take your mind of the wider world this month, lichens are your friend.

The other day I had the idea to post on Twitter asking for people to share their lichen photos from around the world. In a time when we are unable to travel anywhere and people are suffering, it felt like a positive thing to do:

After a little while, people from all over the world began to post their photos. Over night UK time there were a series of posts from Japanese lichen lovers. It is one of the most incredible things about social media and the Internet, that someone can post in Japanese and the software does a decent job of translating it. A couple of the Japanese tweets included Cladonia lichens, what in English we generally refer to as cup lichens:

And here someone posted: ‘my home lichen’:

My interest in lichen originates from my Irish roots. There is a track at the foot of the Ox Mountains in Mayo, western Ireland, that I have walked many times with my family. It is surrounded by old boulders and bogs, all drenched in lichens. Some of the species I got to know there were reindeer lichens, Cladonia portenosa.

Reindeer lichen, February 2012

Reindeer lichens seem to get their name from the fact their structure is like reindeer antlers. They are also known to be grazed by reindeer where they grow in Scandinavia. I believe they are also used as for dyeing cloth and as a delicacy in posh restaurants.

Lipstick lichens, May 2017

One Cladonia that catches the eye is Cladonia floerkeana, also known as devil’s matchstick lichen. Seriously, anything red is devilish?! I like the name lipstick lichens, and I will be calling them that.

Lipstick lichens, May 2017

These lichens were growing on top of the Ox Mountains (what are really hills when it comes to height). They are covered by boglands on the plateau. Mayo is a place with very high levels of annual rainfall, making it perfect for these moisture dependent organisms.

Lipstick lichens, March 2013

The lipstick lichens were growing on top of a boulder, while others could be found growing among vegetation in the bogs. I can’t wait to go back there and see what I can find. Here is an image from a few years earlier, when I didn’t own a macro lens. It gives a sense of their habitat.

This is the land of the lichen. In the distance you can see Nephin, a mountain which has just had a new book written about it.

Cup lichens, January 2021

There is a farm near to where I live now in Sussex that has its own populations of cup lichens. I have noticed in recent years how fencing posts which are not treated with chemicals can important habitats for lichen, moss and fungi. The cup lichens above are very happy with their current abode.

Cup lichens, 2019, Sussex

These lichens seem to be noticed more than any other. They look splendid holding onto droplets of water in their cups, and their very nature of reaching upwards draws them to our attention. They are the quintessential ‘pixie’ cup lichens.

Thanks for reading.

Next week: Dartmoor

Further fungi

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Unlocking Landscapes #4: Living with pelicans and bears in northern Greece with Julian Hoffman

https://mcdn.podbean.com/mf/web/h9428w/UL_Ep3_JH_Part1_137njit.mp3 This is part one of two episodes with author Julian Hoffman. This episode focuses on Julian’s life in northern Greece where he encounters European brown bears in his day to day life. We also discuss the local accents of wrens(!), particularly Liverpudlian wrens. Julian has published two books. In 2012 The Small Heart of… Continue reading Unlocking Landscapes #4: Living with pelicans and bears in northern Greece with Julian Hoffman

#FungiFriday: moss bells in the wintry Weald

Fungi Friday 18th December 2020

The temperatures have crept up again after a period of freezing cold and foggy mornings. During one of those colder December days I visited a favourite place to find fungi. I was surprised by just how much had managed to fruit, though it was mostly quite small.

My first find was this common puffball mushroom, looking well nibbled and past its pomp. Almost all of the mushrooms I found and spent time trying to photograph were growing in beds of moss. That says to me that the mosses were providing a warmer, wetter platform to fruit from, protecting the mycelium of the fungus from the cold beyond its fronds.

I had a lot of fun photographing galerina mushrooms, otherwise known as moss bells. One of the most famous mushrooms in this family is the funeral bell, for reasons you can probably guess. I am not at a point to identify moss well, but I do know this is common feather moss. And that is an old oak leaf.

I found some lovely moss bells as I worked my way further into the beech, oak, hazel and holly woodland. In England we don’t have much in the way of wooded ‘wilderness’ that North America or Russia is famed for. But in the south-east of England, the Sussex Weald is perhaps the closest thing we have to a vast woodland area. Woods in England are split up by private ownership and mixed land use, with many small woods cleared for agriculture or building. If you want to see what a fence looks like, come on over. However, the Weald to the east of Sussex is the most wooded area in England, and much of it is ancient, broad-leaved and ‘natural’ woodland.

Moss bells are actually parasitic on mosses, though they evidently do not cause it the kind of bother the word ‘parasite’ brings to mind. The submarine telescopes surrounding the shroom here are moss sporophytes, which release the spores to allow the mosses to reproduce elsewhere. Much like mushrooms!

Have a look on moss growing on fallen trees or on the trunks of trees. You might get lucky and find yourself a moss bell.

I’m annoyed with myself because I’ve seen this tiny mushroom with its Hellraiser-esque, spiny cap, but I didn’t take the chance to note it and now I’ve forgotten. It was growing in a crevice in a fallen tree. The veins in the decaying oak leaf show just how small it was. That’s the second time it’s made its way onto this blog without a name. Sorry no refunds.

Another fallen tree was covered in mosses, ferns, lichens and, of course, a community of mushrooms. Sulphur tuft is a winter stalwart. So if you’re reading this, sulphur tuft, thank you. There are some other interesting things going on here, with the decaying wood already beginning to turn into something like soil, and the roots of something trailing across and feeding on the substrate. That’s life.

The final species group I found on mossy logs was the bonnets. They also seem able to handle the cold weather in the way that ground-based shrooms can’t.

I always forget that September can be a good month to find fungi, if it’s not too cold. Hopefully this blog, which has now been running for a year, does go to show how many things you can find throughout the year. Autumn is not the only time to find fungi. It’s everywhere, all of the time.

This woodland is quite heavily dominated by holly. For many people in the UK, that’s seen as a bad thing, with the idea that woods should be nothing but light. In the Sussex Weald, holly indicates ancient woodland and holly is a key species. At least one woodland was protected because of its populations of wild holly. I absolutely love it, having worked with it for several years. It coppices very well and the timber is great for small-scale green woodworking like fencing and posts. Of course at Christmas it makes lovely wreaths.

The holly was providing protection for areas of the woodland floor that seemed to be very rich in smaller fungi. This bizarre thing is a yellow club fungus. It was part of a community of many more.

Though I’m not quite sure what this species is, probably a parasol relative of some kind, it was a surprise to see it. I wonder if the newly fallen beech leaves were providing a layer of warmth which protected the fungal mycelia in the soil from frost, allowing them to produce mushroom fruiting bodies?

I’ll end this week’s post with perhaps the most strange thing I found, down in the leaf litter again (but not without moss). Having looked at my massive fungus tome, I think this is a species of clavulina, which is not far away from a coral fungus. These fungi are ectomycohrizzal which means they have a symbiotic relationship with a plant. That means they have been able to agree a trade deal of things that they could not otherwise gain as standalone species. I hope the British and European toadstools in Brussels can take some inspiration. Though the trade between plant and fungus might have taken several million years to agree. Uh oh.

Thanks for reading.

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#FungiFriday: streams and shrooms in Sussex

Fungi Friday 11th December 2020

There is something special about woodlands in December. For wildlife, they can be a forbidding and barren place, which is why so many birds now move to warmer urban areas for food and shelter at this time of year. I’ve spent a good amount of time in woodland recently and the amount of fungi was a pleasant surprise. The gills in the Sussex Weald (a local name for a stream, plural) were gushing after lots of rain. They kept good company on their edges – mushrooms.

I spent a couple of hours following the edge of a network of Wealden gills. I found a number of smaller mushrooms along the edges of the gushing gills, like this very dapper looking mushroom with a wood sorrel bowtie. You may also notice a tiny springtail on the plant! The word gill is also used in Scotland and northern England, where it’s often spelled ‘ghyll’.

Something that really caught my eye was the work of this wrinkled crust fungus, which is its actual name.

Fungi’s main function (fungtion?) in a woodland is to break down organic matter into soil and other minerals and nutrients which can support other species. It was fascinating to see this fungus ingesting (perhaps) organic waste material in its path. In this case it was consuming a sycamore seed.

Nearby, another specimen of the fungus was getting to work on a sycamore leaf.

On a tree growing over the gill, this purply jellydisc looked like something out of a 1950s b-movie horror film. I think it’s the moss’s sporophytes that make it look so low-budget sci-fi.

I think you probably get what I mean.

I had my binoculars with me for this walk and they were very useful in, unsurprisingly, spotting things from a distance. Without them I would have missed a fallen birch tree that was covered in many species of fungi, as well as slime moulds and mosses. Above is a species of either trametes or stereum, two kinds of smaller polypore.

There was a helpful illustration of blushing bracket’s lifecycle, moving from a pale coloured fruiting body, to red and then something much darker. That’s a long blush.

Sulphur tuft is a very common species which seems able to tough it out through the colder months. I have seen so much of it recently.

Though it may look nice, it’s a toxic fungus, so don’t get any ideas.

Take nothing but photographs, in this instance. Give nothing but likes and nice comments.

Thanks for reading.

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