Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Fungi’

Epping Forest - 11-8-2018 - djg-45

Epping Forest, Essex/London, August 2018

Saturday morning in Epping Forest and so often a trip to the woods feels like leaving a world behind. The weekend shoppers, cyclists, children feeding ducks in the village pond. The open plain. Rain came yesterday in stormy downpours. It was so wet a local garden centre roof couldn’t contain it. Today the sun beats down on the still scorched grasslands, small copper and common blue butterflies drinking from ragwort flowers at the path’s edge.

Breaking into Epping Forest, the temperature sinks and the dampness swells. I’m here to photograph mushrooms, hopeful that the rain has prompted the fast-acting fungi to fruit. Last August autumn came early and Epping Forest was bursting with boletes, amanitas and russulas. Every step meant mushrooms. Over the past year that memory has spread through my mind like the hyphae of a fungus in the woodland soil. Today, the woodland floor offers the complete opposite.

Ganoderma fungus - Daniel Greenwood

Some fungi don’t need much water but for the majority of species it is fundamental to producing a fruiting body, otherwise known as mushroom or toadstool. Epping Forest has many dead trees that hold their own reserves of moisture in the cool, dank shade. The fallen beech trees that lay across the Forest host tough and long-lived bracket fungi that appear as hard as stone. Softer are the oyster mushrooms splashed against the old trunks. At first they are brown-capped but as they mature the cap spreads to match the creamy flesh of the gills.

In Epping Forest our former reliance on woodland trees for simple materials and fuel echoes into the age of disposable plastic and solar panels. Approaching Ambresbury Bank, areas of the Forest open out into exhibitions of old beech trees known as ‘lapsed-pollards’. These digit-heavy trees were once cut to a high stump or pollard. Their branches were pruned back for firewood and other thrifty woodland things. Many have not been cut since the 19th century, the era traditional, pre-forestry woodland management began to fade in the UK. The old way of doing things, that is.

Epping Forest - 11-8-2018 - djg-30

In the past few years I’ve come to know someone who grew up local to here, living through the Second World War, with the Forest as her childhood playground. She remembers doodle bugs running out of fuel and crashing down to destroy a house a week away from receiving new tenants and the greenhouses where her father grew mushrooms for a living. She also remembers a man approaching her and her sister in the woods but she was smart enough to get them away as quickly as she could.

Today she said something unusual to modern language, calling the path that runs centrally through the Forest a ‘ride’. This is an old woodland word harking back to the days when large trees were felled and carried out along a wide trackway cut through a wood. This act is where the phrase ‘the long haul’ originates from.

The use of the word was proof of a life lived close to woods and a bygone way of seeing them, before they became pure recreation areas, nature reserves or carbon sinks in the minds of citizens today. Now the ride is the domain of cyclists, tyres hissing on the still wet gravel, as well as dog walkers and horse riders. Though the trees are cut for conservation and their own preservation, no timber is drawn out along this ride in the way one local native of the Forest once knew.

Epping Forest - 11-8-2018 - djg-40

A few hundred yards ahead a small desire-line appears between brambles, leading to a noticeboard and huge trench. On the banks of the trench are pollard beech trees, which are in fact much younger than the trench. This area is known as Ambresbury Banks, an earthwork thought to have been dug out in 500BC by a pre-Roman, British tribe. Its aim was probably to protect the people from invasion or as a place to keep livestock.

The creators of Ambresbury Banks were like close to the true Brits or Picts of pre-Roman Britain, the ‘painted’ people. Unsubstantiated tales (or myths) tell that Boudicca’s final stand against the Romans took place here. It’s a story adopted by several green spaces in the hills of Greater London.

Another nugget of knowledge from my native Forester came with the true pronunciation of Ambresbury Banks when I told her where I was going for a couple of hours:

‘It’s “Aims-bury”,’ she said. ‘Not “Am-bres-bury”.’

I head back to the village following the route I came in on. Saturday walkers appear from behind trees, lost in the lack of ride and clear trackway. A glade has been formed by the collapse of an old beech tree. Its limbs grew as individuals from its base. Falling, they have pulled up soil and broken smaller trees in their wake. Now light fills the break in the canopy. Dragonflies compete for airspace, hoverflies bask on the sun-baked bark. Oyster mushrooms squeeze from cracks in the dead wood. The loss of this old tree has elements of sadness but look at the life that comes in its wake.

Epping Forest - 11-8-2018 - djg-50

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This post is part of my Woodlands project

View my full gallery of New Forest photos on Flickr

One of the great rewards of cultivating an interest in wildlife is the freshness and newness, the constant change. In spring it’s the woodland flowers breaking through the soil, in summer the bees, wasps and butterflies, and in autumn I seek out mushrooms on the woodland floor. This autumn, however, has not given the third kingdom of biological life, the fungi, what it needs. It has been very dry in the south of England. In October 2015 clouded and trooping funnels were romping across the woodland floor but this year there is very little soil-based fungi. Thanks to the astute minds of woodland conservationists who leave deadwood ‘in situ’ there are still mushrooms to be found and photographed for those of us who seek it. As I’ve said before, I’m not a forager for no good reason other than that I just enjoy photographing mushrooms. The New Forest has received publicity recently for its mushrooms and the Forestry Commission’s ban on all picking.

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Sure enough the signs were up when entering Forestry Commission land. I put similar signs up in my professional life and wish more people would respect the landowner’s wishes. But I sympathise with both sides in this case. Peter Marren argues that the Forestry Commission do more damage than a forager ever could with the use of heavy duty forestry machinery. Mushrooms are just the fruiting body of the fungus itself and the most important thing for any soil-based fungus is the mycelium in the soil. When heavy machinery is used in a forestry setting the soil is churned up and the mycelium destroyed. Even when the biggest band of foragers comes to raid the nest, they will only really be doing what the organism wants – spreading the spores released by the mushroom and leaving the mycelium intact. I sympathise with both arguments and feel that Marren may have the edge scientifically.

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Conservation debates aside, there were lots of mushrooms to be seen. It has only been in the final weeks of October that honey fungus (Armillaria) has begun to appear and I came across large spreads of this most attractive and demonised mushroom. It is necrotrophic and often takes more from a tree than it gives in return in the symbiotic sense, meaning that the tree can often fail. It’s a native species often indicative of ancient woodland, so it’s been killing and breaking down trees for millions of years in Europe. But when it costs people money, people get angry.

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Honey fungus is the common name for a number of different types which are more difficult to identify straight away. I came across this charming clutch at the base of a beech tree. To think that fungi is in the fossil record as far back as 700 million years ago, while the Homo genus we have evolved from broke from other primates 3 million years ago. I feel we owe these unthinkably ancient organisms respect, which means not taking more than we should and protecting their habitats and allowing them to be, well, mushrooms. I think this species is Armillaria mellea owing to the ring and the colouring in the centre of the cap.

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Though I have complained about the lack of fungi this autumn on the soil sulphur tuft (Hypholoma fasciculare) has had a great year. It took it a while to come out last autumn but it has been first past the post this time. It is one of our most common species, found on the surface of logs and fallen trees.

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Looking back at this macro image of a bonnet mushroom (Mycena) I noticed the small shower of spores leaving the gills and flowing off towards the left. I’ve never seen a mushroom with a cap do this and certainly did not notice until I looked more closely later. To think one of those spores could end up producing a beautiful mushroom like this somewhere nearby.

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Spore dropping mushrooms are known as basidiomycetes, pointing to the basidium which, in mushrooms with gills, is where the spores are produced. Alternatively ascomycetes are spore shooters and myxomycetes are slime moulds, which aren’t fungus at all. Still there? On Halloween you could be forgiven for thinking these were the fangs of a vampire mushroom. But vampires don’t exist, and it’s a mushroom. This is a species from the genus Amanita.

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Though it can be disappointing if you’ve travelled a long way to see a big show of mushrooms in the woods and find nothing much, there is pleasure in finding  a little mushroom down in the leaf litter. This little bonnet was sticking its head above a parapet made of beech leaf litter, hence the brown and faintly orange blur throughout the image.

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Somewhat more incongruous and rock like was this earth ball in the genus Schleroderma.

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No, I am not saying this is a mushroom. It’s the reproductive parts of a moss seeking to spread its spores across the woodland.

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In the plant kingdom the bracken, such an important resource for people and their animals in the New Forest, was rainbow-like. The greens were so dark they almost appeared blue.

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The New Forest is an ancient landscape that supports species of conservation importance across Europe. In England the wild service tree (Sorbus torminalis) is far less common than it once was but Roydon Woods NNR is a good place to find the odd individual tree. I had never seen its autumn colour until this year.

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Out of the woods I found this parasol mushroom hiding in the shelter of bramble. If this was a tabloid article there would be a band of European foragers coming round the corner there with sacks full of mushrooms. There was only a lady walking her dog.

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One of the things to remember at this time of year is how quickly the light fades. On Halloween bats were hunting at 4 o’clock, ready for their upcoming hibernation. Is this why they are such a key part of Halloween’s iconography, because they hunt so close to dusk in autumn we come into contact with them, their shapes imprinted in our minds. I left with the shapes of New Forest ponies grazing the misty horizon of Balmers Lawn, imprinted upon my camera’s memory card.

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North Downs diary, Coulsdon, September 2016

It’s dry and dull on the downs, wild carrot and ragwort desiccating, but house martins migrate overhead as they begin their return to Africa. In the damp and shady nooks of Devilsden Wood’s rotting logs the mushrooms sprout. The first I can find is a tiny bonnet rising out of beech leaves, one such leaf topped by an aphid. There is a spread of what I think are webcaps, orange-yellow in the wood dark. Now I remember the ache of kneeling for so long, gently turning the focus ring of the lens to catch the right part of the mushroom: the serrated gills, the skin of the cap. Overhead the soft calling of a tawny owl comes, at four o’clock in the afternoon. I’ve noticed this for the past month, with owls calling at two and three o’clock. The jays begin to rouse with their piercing shrieks, they are the principle mob leaders against the tawny. But no ruckus is forthcoming. I’ve read that tawny owls actually call more commonly in daylight rather than under darkness. Reading about them only this morning I learned that owls are better at hunting at dusk and some species are aided by an increase in moonlight. The jays are right to be worried, with birds taking up the largest chunk of a tawny’s diet. Under a decaying beech trunk dressed in moss the shape of a wood mouse trails into the cover of the leftover bark, another species fearful of the owl.

Away from the fungi I take a closer look at an old horse chestnut perhaps some 200-300 years in age, planted as a boundary marker on the edge of Happy Valley. It stands out beyond the still verdant hazel coppices with its floor of red crinkled leaves. It’s often the first to leaf and the first to leave. Out beyond the trees in Happy Valley the sun casts long shadows, the lines of hay the shadows of recent cutting, soon to be bailed, probably sold on to feed local grazing animals through the winter. I don’t quite know. Elsewhere on the North Downs these rows of hay are burnt, its value no longer universally high across the chalk. The sun sets over Devilsden Wood, the sheep grazing in the golden September light. All appears well in this remnant of downland past.

More from my North Downs diary

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Dog stinkhorn Coulsdon, London, November 2014

In Devilsden Wood we tiptoe around fallen beech logs, slipping at times on beech leaves and clay, and the emptied mast. The nuts will have been eaten by hungry jays and squirrels. Over the past few weeks I’ve crouched down around these logs photographing their fungi: beech jellydisc with its almost caucasian flesh, purple jellydisc creeping out by the week from wisps of moss. Most startling for a layman like me was the glaring eye of dog stinkhorn, named after its canine stench. Lodged in a piece of black deadwood it had the appearance of a fox or wolf skull looking up at me. The long, finger-like stems that it had produced had collapsed, orange tips like finger nails. As Julian Hoffman has written recently, referring to the poet Rilke, we are surrounded by a world that beckons us to perceive it, to engage with it, to look and to touch. To me the fingers of the stinkhorn could be pointers to something worth seeing. Today only the jellydiscs remain, as well as a brown mushroom that reflects the white break of cloud between the trees above in its glossy cap. My friend Philip is searching for something behind me and as I look up the sharp dark shape of a sparrowhawk slices between us in silence. If we were little woodland birds we would not have seen a thing.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014
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Parrot waxcap

Farthing Downs, London, November 2014

Blue smoke plumes from the dreary Downs, the crack of piled ash trees cuts through the distant wash of the M25, and now the noise of chainsaws. This work is good fun. How many people panic at the sound of this machine, waking to find that their favourite tree is gone from the frame of their bedroom window. In the town I am always suspicious when their itch carries. But this is the restoration of the chalky meadows swallowed by the incoming of woods. We as a species have been trying to halt the loss of woods but at the same time deny new ones for thousands of years. This is a thousand-year-old view, the only change the exchange of machines for the pop of axes on heartwood.

Against a view of near leafless beech, a green woodpecker rises from the anthills, its flight reminiscent of a puppet tugged at intervals as it passes. Robins sing, gulls create the aura of the Sussex coast, and rain specks add a pinch of cool. In the now flattened meadows fungi can be found: a parrot waxcap plucked and left, yellow gills that ripple like flames around its stem. Puffballs are scattered across the path, little footballs deflated and unwanted. I press my toe into one, flattened and leathery grey, its brown spores puffing out like effluent. I definitely take them with me.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014
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Devilsden Wood

Farthing Downs, London, September 2013

Standing on the track leading into Devilsden Wood I look to the ground for dryness, somewhere that hasn’t been soaked by this perpetual rainfall. I see fallen ivy leaves that appear like cuts of leather when really they are crisp under foot. Dog shit, too, the new waybread for the modern ancient footway. I hate the stuff. My waterproof sheds its load onto my jeans and it’s wait and become cold or move and receive woodland raindrops, some chucked from the canopy of mature yew, ash and beech, some fifty feet up. When they get behind glasses, these droplets shock the senses.

It’s fungi season, the signpost of falling temperatures, not too cold but a shift from the sultry summer. I gawp at log piles with an explosion of mushroom caps, marked by striping and shapes that would define them to those who understood them. But still, I spy an oysterling appearing from a rotting trunk and feel that in two years of woodland obsession I have at least learned something about this magical animal that appears so fleetingly it could almost be through the fabric of time, a monitor on how we’re doing. Checking the sole of my boot again, we’re crap. I wipe it off in a mud puddle. The rain has not lessened. I head back out from the dark, autumn-beckoning woodland and onto the wet warfare of the Downs. The change in mind is clear, the atmosphere of a woodland changes you. It is not like the open land, so much a canvas for human experimentation, our impact on woodlands is never so clear as the plough’s to the open landscape. A woodland to all but a minority could have been in that state for millenia, before human time. The wood is a wild city, with nature’s social housing, swimming pools and fast food. It was our home once, too. There is the semblance of a summer out here, yellow rattle not yet rattling, knapweed funked-out in pinkish purple, even a bit of scabious. These wildflowers have something of January’s left over Christmas decorations about them. A car passes along the lane. Woodpigeons are striking through the rainy sky, turning their wings and bodies at an angle – to avoid the direction of the rain? – always as individuals. These birds cut several different figures in a year – hurried, panicked on the wing, or else male birds cutting arcs out of the sky as they display to females long into the summer recesses. Now they could be migrating, they could be hunted. Mostly they are gorging on elderberries outside my bedroom window.

On the Downs a flock of goldfinch are startled into the sky like pieces of a broken vase put back, its smash rewound and fixed. They sit in a small hawthorn bush and I look more closely. On the end of a branch, clear and possibly not so fearful of man is a juvenile, all grey on the head, interested in looking but unaware of the perils of being watched. My advances fracture them once more and I’m left with a snapshot of their escape into the landscape captured on my camera.

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