Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Fungi’

Belstone sundown

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

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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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The Sussex Weald: a winter springline

West Sussex, December 2020 A storm has passed through overnight and in the morning the Arun is near flooding. All summer the river has been low, stagnant where managed by mini-dams installed to slow the flow through suburbia. On one footbridge where usually dogs jump in, chemicals and all, the river floods sections of the…

#FungiFriday: the golden shield lichen

Fungi Friday 8th January 2021 Once again in England we have to stay at home to stop the spread of the horrific Coronavirus, with only one exercise trip outside allowed each day. When I’ve been heading out I’ve been passing through a local churchyard and cemetery on some days. These are the perfect places to…

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Fungi Friday 8th January 2021

Once again in England we have to stay at home to stop the spread of the horrific Coronavirus, with only one exercise trip outside allowed each day. When I’ve been heading out I’ve been passing through a local churchyard and cemetery on some days. These are the perfect places to find lichens, especially where there are old gravestones and trees. I thought I would kick off #LichenJanuary by looking at one of the most common lichens, which may help people to gain an interest and see that there is a way in. To identifying them, rather than becoming one.

A quick intro to lichens. Lichens are a partnership of fungi with either algae or cyanobacteria. The fungus provides the physical structure for the organism and the algae or cyanobacteria turns sunlight into sugar through photosynthesis. Fungi, to my knowledge, are not able to photosynthesise. This is another reason why fungi partner with plants, which of course are able to harvest sunlight for food. There are a number of species on the branch seen here. The most prominent species is showing off its cup fungi, a type of ascomycete (ass-co-my-seat). Ascomycetes produce spores in the ‘ascus’ (singular) or ‘asci’ (plural) and shoot them out. Most mushroom-type fungi are basidiomycetes, which drop spores from the ‘basidia’ in the gills.

Now, fungi are hard to identify, and lichens can be even more difficult. That is such a massive understatement, because some fungi will never be seen and some lichens you just won’t ever notice. We’re talking generally of things you are likely to see in your life. Above and below is a common European lichen, tolerant of air pollution, which many lichens are not. It’s the golden shield lichen, Xanthoria parietina. If you want to learn more about lichen ID I would really recommend using iNaturalist which has good artificial intelligence and also some experts floating around who will help you to ID them.

Here’s another close-up of the golden shield lichen. It really can be found all over, and looking at its behaviour above, you can see why. It is a dominant species in urban areas.

From the top of the image above you can see Xanthoria creeping in on some rather pretty lichens. This is my favourite ever lichen photo. I spotted this fallen poplar branch several days before I took this photo and returned again to capture it.

Here’s Xanthoria with a hint of its pale blue colouring. Like other species which benefit from the increase of nitrogen dioxide in the atmosphere and the soil, nettles and brambles, for example, I think Xanthoria is a symbol of our impact. As things change over time, I wonder how its dominance will shift over time.

Next week: pixie cup lichens!

Thanks for reading.

Further fungi

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A German New Year’s card – with symbols of good luck, including fly agaric

Fungi Friday 25th December 2020

Merry Christmas to you! I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to post a second piece about the Santa Claus and magic mushroom myth. I saw an Instagram post by Gordon Walker which criticised the oft-repeated story (oops) of Santa and fly agaric mushrooms. I asked for more info and he kindly suggested listening to a psychedelic mushroom podcast.

https://www.podbean.com/ew/dir-t3mdd-545caae

Just to warn you, it’s a bit sweary and the author, Tom Hatsis, is pretty angry about the ignorance he suggests maintains the myth of fly agaric and Santa. He describes the proponents of this idea as conspiracy theorists. There is also a lot of talk about psychedelic drug taking which is not quite the content I’m looking for. I think you might have to read the book for him to substantiate his argument against the story.

What I gleaned from this interview:

  • There is no evidence that Santa Claus was a shamanic figure who consumed fly agaric mushrooms or used them to herd reindeer
  • There are no Siberian reindeer-herding shamans
  • Fly agaric does not appear in authentic Germanic Christmas cards, they’re New Years cards which use fly agaric as a good luck symbol, alongside horse shoes and four-leaf clovers
  • Jesus was not a mushroom…
  • Fly agarics would not dry on trees (to release hallucinogenic chemicals) in the very cold temperatures of Siberia or northern Scandinavia

Merry Christmas and thanks for reading.

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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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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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Fungi Friday 4th December 2020

In Sussex we have now inched out of a national ‘lockdown’ and into more localised restrictions on hugs, walks and purchases. Not that fungi (if it could) cares a jot about any of these psychological blockades. They have enough on their hyphae feeding the world’s woods, trees and forests. I will admit that after seeing the mushrooms fading away into a typical ‘mush’ in my local woods (not actually mine) I had sweated on this post. Again, not literally. Temperatures are loitering around the five degrees Celsius mark (I learned this week that Celsius was an actual person) which means frost and therefore frozen fungi. Fungi are 90% water which means they can only really produce fruiting bodies above ground – it can be quite toasty in the soil, where they can remain active socialising with tree roots – when it’s warmer than this.

One thing I have noticed is that fungi are lingering longer in grasslands. Last week I saw inkcaps in golfing greens. Recently I passed a local cemetery and spotted some white mushrooms in the grasslands. On closer inspection I could see these were a white species of waxcap. Waxcaps are rare mushrooms which are largely dependent on ancient grasslands or those which are stable, i.e. not regularly ploughed up or disturbed. Among the white mushrooms I saw some stonking red ones – which iNaturalist helped me to ID as scarlet waxcap. I am put off identifying this family of shrooms because it is not always straightforward, a bit like webcaps, of which there are thousands of species, even in the nature-depleted UK.

These are gorgeous mushrooms. Cemeteries are a great place to find these fungi because the grasslands are sometimes as old as 300 years or more, do not suffer from the use of chemicals, and the lack of footfall out of respect, means the grasslands are soft and accommodating to species trying to move through them. There are lots of projects to monitor grasslands for waxcaps, such as this project from Plantlife and the very interesting charity Caring for God’s Acre.

My best find was this keeled-over meadow waxcap, fanning its gills like some feral peacock. It may have been the frost that has caused it to pose like an ancient tree, but it will probably help with the spread of its spores.

As you can see, waxcaps are incredibly beautiful fungi. If you see any on your travels please do submit species records to Plantlife or your local Wildlife Trust. You can also take a photo and submit it to iNaturalist or iRecord depending on your preference. Better still, inform the people who own the land – ‘do you know you have rare wildlife living on your land?’ – and ask them to take this into consideration when managing it.

Here’s a wider view where you can see just how big the meadow waxcap is! Those surrounding trees will not be great for the waxcaps due to shading, so for their benefit tree planting should be avoided and cutting of the grasslands is a priority.

It wasn’t just waxcaps though, I found something more suitably Gothic growing alongside a grave.

This is a species in a group known as the goblets! What a great name. I need to get myself a goblet.

Thanks for reading.

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Fungi Friday 27th November 2020

It’s nearly over. Mushroom season 2020 has been a short, sharp shock of fungi in southern England. I spent some time this week scouring local woodlands and walking on the rural edges. I found little in the way of soil-based mushrooms. To me this is a sign that autumn is over and winter has made its claim. We’re entering into the Tier 3 of seasons.

A good sign that mushroom season is over is when you are only able to spot very small species on moss or in tree bark. There are micro-climates in trees and mosses that allow for humidity and the fruiting of some species. This is a moss bell in the family Galerina.

I did find some mushrooms on the woodland floor but they were mostly mush, collapsed in on themselves after heavy rain. I found one emerging blusher (Amanita rubescens) in an area of heathy pine woodland.

As you can see, most of the trees had shed their leaves but for younger silver birches which still held some colour.

I found most of my fungi on a massive fallen beech tree. Beech jellydisc was just fruiting.

It’s easily confused with jelly ear, which is usually found on elder rather than beech and grows much more floppy. Perhaps beech jellydisc is also more pale in colour.

I was pretty intrigued by this weird crust fungus, wrinkled crust. It was lovely and vibrant, with an interesting orange fruiting body appearing from its base.

December is a month when I really begin to notice slime moulds, maybe because the woods are growing bare.

Though not a fungus, this very small slime mould is a Lycogala, with the common name of wolf’s milk. You can pop it with your finger and liquid gushes out. It’s harmless and quite fun. That may also help the organism to reproduce.

The following day I went for a walk from my house and found these shaggy inkcaps trespassing on a deserted golf course. Golf, like other outdoor sports, has not been allowed during the UK’s recent lockdown. It was eerily quiet and I was the only person there.

I thought these mushrooms were charming, like a parent protecting its offspring all at sea in the grasslands.

Grasslands seem able to hold fungi later into the year than woodlands. I think that’s down to the leaf-fall in woodland, which may repress some species from being able to push through. Just an untested theory.

I’m confident this is a species of waxcap, perhaps snowy waxcap. Waxcaps are indicators of ancient grasslands and have suffered in Britain due to agricultural intensification. The chalk grassland of the South Downs is a great place for them, but churchyards and even some moorlands can be good, too.

One lunchtime I made a break for the woods, with much lower expectations than previously. I spotted this blusher pushing through in the cradle of a tree root. Only later did I notice that an ichneumon wasp had landed, in focus, on the cap of the mushroom. It was a complete accident. You can read more about ichneumon wasps in my Macro Monday blog.

A new find for me (and once again not a fungus) was this coral slime mould. It was spreading across a small piece of wood at the side of the path. Slime moulds are fascinating because they are something of a mystery to science. They are believed to show early evolutionary forms of memory and are not closely related to fungi. I still need to buy the ID book.

Thanks for reading.

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Fungi Friday 20th November 2020

A few weeks ago I visited a favourite Sussex woodland renowned for its fungal life. Mushrooms were to be found everywhere. I was blown away.

I’m writing this a month later, having been taken out of the loop by illness for two of them (not Covid, thankfully) and now a national lockdown in England (Covid). Judging from a wintry woodland walk yesterday, I expect the trip will be my experience of the mushroom peak of 2020. So here’s how it went:

I knew it was going to be a fruitful visit when I turned into the reserve and saw mushrooms on either side of the lane. This amazing family of shaggy inkcaps provided a perfect autumn image. You can see the larger specimens heading into their state of deliquesce where the ink begins to form and drop, spreading the spores.

Across the lane these younger shaggies were just appearing from the soil.

There were puffballs in close attendance, including this very large pestle puffball. It appears that someone had been clearing the vegetation around it to get a better photo. That’s a bit of a no-no.

A more modest puffball was growing close by. I was testing out a new camera bought after trading in some underused camera equipment. I was using an Olympus E-M5 Mark 3. It’s a micro four thirds mirrorless camera, much smaller and lighter than my usual full-frame Nikon equipment. It passed the mushroom test with flying colours.

I have been thinking a lot recently about how photography may at times get in the way of my experiencing the outdoors. If you become weighed down with equipment, or perhaps distracted by other things, likewise with people, problems or other plans, it can hamper your ability to enjoy the moment. That was becoming an issue for me with photography. Taking photos required a lot of kit and much of it heavy. I have begun to question if it’s really worth it. Hence trying to lighten up both my equipment and my mentality.

In October there were a huge number of magpie inkcap images on social media. It has clearly had a good year. I wonder if in future that kind of data can be harnessed to understand the prevalence of certain species. A bit like open source investigate journalism.

Porcelian fungus has also had another solid year. There is one tree I head to, a semi-collapsed beech tree that is always home to these beauties in autumn. I like to photograph this fungus from below, sometimes using a light to illuminate the gills.

Porcelain fungus is translucent and glossy, so that helps it look even better in photos.

On the same log I found this mushroom, probably a bonnet. It was only later that I noticed the thread of silk running from the gills to the moss. That’s the beauty of macro photography, you don’t see everything straight away. It goes to show how poor our eyesight really is and how much we miss.

Further into the woodland I found this lovely cluster of shaggy scalycap mushrooms, just peaking and perhaps beyond their best. Here I used a tripod and an external LED to light them from underneath. I used a zoom lens and once again the camera was a winner.

There were mushrooms absolutely everywhere. It was probably the most mushrooms I have ever encountered in a single day. This stinkhorn is only the second I’ve ever found. Interestingly I had passed it earlier in the day and the black sludge that covers the top of the fungus had disappeared by about an hour or so later. I believe that is eaten by the insects you can see here, in order to spread the spores. It’s a gross fungus but utterly fascinating.

I know a pile of logs alongside the path that is always good in autumn for coral fungus. I was not to be disappointed. This could be a scene from The Little Mermaid or perhaps the ruins of some Bavarian mega-castle.

There were many fly agarics to be found, probably in the hundreds. One patch was in incredible condition. When I find scenes like this, it gives me an adrenaline rush, knowing I have a limited amount of time and opportunity to get the photo. You can see why I don’t take photos of birds or rare mammals, I would get far too excitable and probably drop the camera.

These fly agarics were some of the most vibrant I have ever encountered. Do check out my blog regarding the bizarre cultural tales about this fungus and the impact its had on our image of Christmas.

This fly agaric was untouchable. It’s the kind of thing I dream of all the year round. I love the way the leaves have been pushed up but still clamour at the stipe of the fungus. It was a perfect specimen. It’s the only place to end. I will be going looking for mushrooms this weekend but after weeks of torrential rain, I fear they may have been washed away. With colder temperatures coming soon with December’s arrival, it could be the end for our fungal friends. I’ll keep you posted.

Thanks for reading.

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Fungi Friday 30th October 2020

Fly agaric, the most iconic mushroom of them all, is currently fruiting en masse in southern England. Looking at social media feeds, it seems to be the case across the UK. In the past week I have witnessed lots of these red and white amanitas in the Sussex Weald. It reminded me of the need to finally crack on and address the issue of fly agaric’s bizarre cultural history. It’s very weird and not something I can prove. But here goes.

The ecology of fly agaric

Fly agaric is a mycorhizzal species. This means it has a special relationship with trees that benefits both the tree and the fungus. The above troop of fly agaric are connecting to the roots of a silver birch tree. The red and white mushrooms are ‘the fruit on the tree’ of the fungus. Under the soil the spreading mycelium, a network of hair-like threads or hyphae, are connected to the root hairs of the birch. The mushroom itself is a massing of the hyphae. The birch is able to ‘direct’ the underground hyphae to reach certain minerals and nutrients it is unable to gather itself. Likewise the fungus will receive water and sugars in support.

It’s the wood-wide web.

Fly agaric is classified as a toxic mushroom to humans. Don’t eat it. As I’ve mentioned here before, it lives in a family of some deadly poisonous mushrooms such as the deathcap and destroying angel. One common use for Europeans has been to kill other insects (surprise, surprise), which is where it gets its name. The mushrooms were mashed into a paste or suchlike and left on windowsills to kill flies. Agaric is an old name for a type of mushroom. There you have it.

Was Father Christmas a mushroom-eating shaman?

That escalated quickly.

A couple of years ago some friends of mine went on a fungi foraging course in Wiltshire, south-west England. They came back with a story which I stole and haven’t stopped lording over unsuspecting acquaintances ever since.

In the coldest parts of northern Europe, places like Scandinavia or Siberia, where birch and coniferous trees are dominant, it was once a ritual for fly agarics to be consumed for hallucinatory purposes. The mushrooms are toxic but were picked and put in sacks that people carried over their shoulders. Then they were left in the, often coniferous, trees to dry out. When the fly agarics were in the trees to dry, they looked like what we in the western world consider Christmas decorations.

Fly agaric does seem to have strong Christmas symbolism, particularly in 20th Century German Christmas greeting card culture.

I don’t know where to begin with this. There are also horseshoes in both these images which are seen as a good luck charm. Their resemblance to a crescent moon is supposed to be significant in Celtic religions.

Back to the mushrooms: when the mushrooms in those Christmas-like trees had finally dried, they were used for hallucinogenic purposes by a shaman. It is said that the shaman arrived on a sled led by reindeer. He clamboured into the tent where people lived, through a hole in the roof where smoke could escape, and climbed down a birch timber used to keep the tent upright:

During the winter families would invite a Shaman to visit, they would arrive on a reindeer led sleigh and enter the yurt through the smoke hole (or chimney) and down the central pole, bringing with them a bag of dried fly agaric. The shaman would take the mushroom and go on a hallucinogenic journey gaining healing knowledge and advice from other realms to problem solve and help with concerns, a type of spiritual gift to be rewarded with offerings of food.

https://moa.co.uk/blogs/news/father-christmas-and-fly-agaric-folklore

Furthermore, when people consumed the dried mushrooms, they had visions of the reindeer flying. Reindeer are also known to like fly agaric and people once used the mushrooms to herd reindeer. You should probably give yourself five minutes to let this all sink in.

For reasons other than Covid-19, Christmas may never be the same again.

Thanks for reading.

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