Entangled Life: the book fungi have been waiting for ๐Ÿ„

Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life has been sitting on my bookshelf for well over a year. It might even be two years. It almost certainly has fungal spores on it, probably mould.

I knew it was going to be an excellent book that contains huge amounts of fascinating info about the fungal kingdom because I’d read the first 50 pages. Alas, I couldn’t find the mental space to take it all in. The reviews have also been almost universally positive, from a broad cross section of readers. This includes people new to the study of fungi and those who are more experienced.

Recently I have had a bit more of that required mental space, after a year of being swamped. I’ve now read the book and It. Does. Not. Disappoint. You get the impression that Sheldrake could write books for the rest of his days focusing on one of the themes chaptered each time, such is the depth of each subject.

It’s the kind of book fungi have been waiting for to tell their stories, as the meme below so totes hilariously illustrates:

I read it with the sense that Sheldrake was using his extensive knowledge and research into fungi to campaign for a better appreciation before it is too late. That said, there isn’t the overarching doom narrative of a lot of nature conservation messaging, more a sense of awe regarding how little we know and have the potential to uncover. This is a book about hope and new possibilities, while understanding some of our planet’s oldest secrets.

It becomes clear halfway through the book that fungi are not an add-on to plants, they are the reason that we even have those bright green things as they are today. It’s a point I often labour at public events and to people not yet convinced by the importance of wilder, species-rich landscapes – without fungi we would not exist.

Suzanne Simard is namechecked as the founder of the ‘Wood Wide Web’, showing that plants actually behave far more communally and that fungi are the lifeblood of the mineral and resource exchange that builds the world we have evolved in. Sheldrake also features several other female academics, a welcome move in a community dominated by middle-class, white male perspectives and privileges. Simard’s book, Finding the Mother Tree is an absolute must-read and is included as a hugely important character in this narrative.

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The more I read about fungi, especially in Sheldrake’s writing, it just makes me think how little we know about anything. We spend a lot of time warring with one another during such short windows of life, we should be using that time to learn more about the incredible world we live in. For example, fungi were only given their own kingdom in 1969, previously just lumped in with plants or as flora. Now there are calls to speak of flora, fauna and funga. Cowafunga, dudes!

Perhaps because most fungi are almost all out of sight (endophytes live within the tissue of plants, rather than producing charismatic fruiting bodies like fly agaric, above ground). Endophytes thus remain forever out of mind. In this sense, our innate human biases (sight) are restricting our ability to conserve vital biodiversity in the form of fungal diversity in soils and other ecosystems. There is evidence about how more charismatic wildlife receive the majority of conservation funding.

Some of the facts on display in Entagled Life will blow you away. Consider that lichens may not be what we think they are, and that some fungi used to ‘lichenise’ but no longer do. The relationships between plants, fungi, algae and bacteria are not necessarily fundamental but more opportunistic. Tree species that are more ‘promiscuous’ are more likely to have found greater dominance over larger areas because they can link up with fungi as they go. The connections trees have with fungi have shaped the landscapes of today.

Further to this, fungi are so biologically complex that it may not be possible to truly name them scientifically as distinct species!

Fungi are able to break down rocks, as they will have done hundreds of millions of years ago to create the first soils and thus stable ecosystems for us humans to evolve in.

Then there are the theories that humans developed complex languages through the brain development spurred on by the ingestion of psylocibin (the hallucinogenic chemical found in some fungi) and other ‘magic’ mushrooms. That remains unproven, as Sheldrake responsibly underlines. But the idea is brilliant and makes life seem so random.

I also was unaware that LSD is derived from the fungus ergot, and ergot infection of people back in mediaeval times may be the reason they ‘danced for days’. Now certain Berlin 24-hour nightclubs make more sense, though they’re way past my bedtime.


Fungamentally this is a book that everyone, from fungi enthusiast to someone just looking to know a little bit more, can get a lot from. It’s written in a very lucid and engaging way, though bear in mind it does take a scientific and methodical approach to its subjects. After the glut of recent nature writing where man-encounters-divine-nature-for-the-first-time, usually in search of one species, that may be just what the mycologist ordered. That said, do species even exist? You have to wonder what Sheldrake will do next with the information he has to share.

Thanks for reading.

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Dulwich Park fungi walk in October

Hi everyone,

I’m pleased to announce that I’m leading a fungi walk in Dulwich Park (SE London) on Sunday 23rd October 2022:

The meeting point is near the cafe at 11am. The walk will last around 90 minutes. The walk is free to attend and is funded by the Dulwich Society.

It’s been such a dry spring and summer but hopefully the stock of old trees and sensitive management that takes place in parts of the park will mean a decent array of fungi can be found. If not, there are always plenty of strange anecdotes about fungi to share.

We’re likely to find common species like inkcaps (above), jelly ear, turkeytail, Ganoderma brackets and brittlestems.

While it’s not a culinary or foraging walk, I can share general information regarding edibility of some common species.

This will be the first walk I’m leading as a freelance guided walks leader (having led walks since 2012). You can find more information about that on my new bookings page.

Thanks for reading.

The cheeseburger fungus ๐Ÿ”

It has been a torrid spring and summer for street trees in southern England. We are breaking all the records for extreme heat and also enduring drought conditions. Street trees have it tough, not only because of the lack of rain but because it can be hard enough for them to access water anyway.

That was hammered home with a tweet I saw recently of someone who had replaced the verge outside their house (not their verge) with plastic grass. The verge was also home to a tree, which will have probably suffocated due to lack of air through the soil and only being able to access water underground.

That said, it has been known for tree roots to seek out water over long distances. Some trees will cross underneath roads to quench their thirst. This becomes increasingly more understandable when you learn that a tree’s roots often extend twice the distance of their height in length under the soil.

Weakened trees on city streets almost always end up with wounds that they struggle to heal, leaving openings for fungi to invade. It is perfectly normal and natural for fungi to grow on trees, and many of them are beneficial. They can help to remove excess dead wood and also act collaboratively with a tree’s roots to trade nutrients.

Some fungi will cause a tree to fail mechanically or biologically. Some will just look like a massive vegan cheeseburger attached to a tree.

I encountered this bracket fungus on a street tree in south London recently and was amazed by the yellow spider silk and webbing. This is the product of the yellow spores the fungus evidently produces, so miniscule that they attach to the sticky silk and turn it fast-food cheese yellow.

The spider that made this web must really be confused by this situation. Perhaps it’s happy with the random redecoration that’s occurred. I wouldn’t mind, it’s actually the colour of my bedroom wall!

I am fairly certain this is Inonotus hispidus or shaggy bracket. It’s a surprise to see it at eye level, whereas it’s usually very high in a tree. You may have seen it as a black fungus sitting at the bottom of a tree trunk. By that point it has finished fruiting and has fallen from its perch. It’s usually on ash but on this occasion was on a whitebeam (Sorbus). If you go walking in an ash woodland at this time of year do take a moment to crane your neck and see if you can spot one up there in its shaggy glory before it comes crashing down to earth.

Thanks for reading.

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The fungus capable of mind-control ๐Ÿ„

In June I was down on the Sussex coast at the mouth of the river Cuckmere. During a bioblitz event I was supporting I discovered something I never expected to see. At the foot of either the first or seventh of the Seven Sisters cliffs, the fenceline and surrounding grasslands were alive with invertebrates. One large thistle plant was covered in all kinds of insects. I felt especially drawn to a beautiful orange and black ichneumon wasp clambering over the spiny leaves. But there was something else that caught my eye.

The fly as found

I noticed a dead fly in a quite unnatural position, a bit like an upside down koala. It was clamped onto one of the spines in a way that reminded me of the famous victims of the parasitic ‘zombie fungus’ cordyceps. Luckily I had my macro lens with me and could get a close-up of the fly.

The fly after I had bent the spine tip of the plant over

The body looked an unusual shade for this species and, looking closer, you could see it was kind of mouldy. I showed everyone I could, taking away the images and several questions I needed to answer for myself!

That afternoon I put the photos on Twitter and had a quick reply from Lukas Large, a known fungi expert in the UK. He said it was a species of entomophthora, a group of fungi that kill flies, just as this one had done. It does much more than that beforehand, however.

Somehow, the fungus enters a final stage of mummification where it ‘gains control’ of the fly’s brain and therefore control over its functions. The fungus is then able to make the fly move to a high position in order to disperse its spores from the dead fly. That is mind blowing in more ways than one.

Thanks for reading.

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The orchids in need of fungi ๐Ÿ„

In June I did a long walk in the Surrey Hills around the famous Box Hill. The North Downs are absolutely fantastic walking country, being so easily accessible from London via public transport, and having some of the UK’s rarest wildlife, along with dramatic hilly landscapes and views.

The human (as well as the natural) history of the North Downs is incredible, with much of the North Downs Way coalescing with the Pilgrims Way.

Early on in this walk, I happened upon an area of yew trees and spotted some chicken of the woods growing. It’s always a nice thing to see.

Lured in by the sight of the fungus, I then found a massive dryad’s saddle growing like a gramophone from a beech tree. This is a fairly common larger fungus to find in June. It’s a summer woodland species.

Having moved round to look at the ridiculous gramophone fungus, I spotted what looked like dead growths of a wildflower or maybe a garden plant that had been dumped. After a minute or so I realised it was in fact a type of orchid: bird’s nest.

This isn’t a species I had ever seen before. It certainly wasn’t at its ‘best’, even though it lacks the colourfulness of other species nearby like common spotted or pyramidal orchids. There’s a really good reason for that.

It has a dependency on fungi. Its lack of cholorophyll is because it receives its food from fungi in the soil, which is also in relation to the roots of trees. The orchids were growing under yew but with beech in close proximity. It’s just another reminder of the role that fungi play in maintaining diverse ecosystems.

Away from the orchids, June is a good time to find chicken of the woods. We’ve had a very hot and dry spring/summer in southern England, and along the trail I noticed that a lot of the chicken had collapsed in brittleness. It’s not even worth looking for mushrooms growing in the soil, it’s just so dry. Fungi once again, or lack of, will show you that we are living through hotter and drier summers in southern England.

The North Downs, like its southerly sisters, the South Downs, are a chalky landscape. There are lots of beech trees in this type of soil. This means the very large Ganoderma bracket fungus is a pretty common sight on the many beech trees that are found here.

Thanks for reading.

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The fungus thriving in the Chernobyl nuclear reactor ๐Ÿ„

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The Chernobyl nuclear power station: IAEA Imagebank / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

Thanks for reading my 600th blog post! Prepare yourself, there’s a lot to take in here.

I’ve been interested in the history of Chernobyl for several years, mainly after learning about the ecological experiment created from the complete abandonment of the area.

If you have the chance to watch the TV drama Chernobyl, do it. It is one of the best TV dramas I’ve ever seen.

A recent documentary covering the story of the nuclear accident Chernobyl: The Lost Tapes and the resulting clean up, is also worth watching. A warning of course that both are graphic and disturbing in their own ways.

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986

Recently I have read Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy. It’s a very sobering account of all that happened in 1986 and how it all came to be. It’s so grim I can’t read it for too long without needing a couple of days off.

I’ve been reading it during Russia’s second attempt to commit genocide in Ukraine (April 2022), after Putin’s ragtag army’s failed attempt to take Kyiv and exact regime change. Russia are doing terrible things in Ukraine and the people responsible must be held accountable. I hope I live to see Putin brought to justice.

When are you going to get on to the fungi – you might ask? I promise you, we will get there eventually, and it will be worth it.

The Red Forest by Jorge Franganillo from Barcelona, Spain, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Red Forest army

It was found recently that the Russian military had been doing some pretty stupid things in the Chernobyl exclusion zone, beyond the illegal attacks against Ukrainians. Perhaps the most stupid things took place in ‘the Red Forest’, and area of extremely high radiation.

Soldiers are thought to have dug trenches in this mind-bendingly radioactive landscape as part of their special radioactive military operation. The Russian military were seeking to invade via Belarus in the north and eventually control Kyiv. Famously, they failed spectacularly, committing war crimes in Bucha, Irpin and other areas before having to retreat.

It was the case at the time around the disaster that the Soviet Union denied the full impact of the accident. In reality many thousands of people will have been contaminated by the radiation from the damaged reactor, but according to the official toll only 31 people have died. It may even be that the soldiers invading Chernobyl did not know that it was dangerous. It beggars belief.

Though those soldiers will not have fared well with the radiation, it was discovered that a species of fungus does not just do well with the radiation, it is thriving inside the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl. Thriving. Inside. I know…

Radiotrophic fungi

Cladosporium sphaerospermum is that fungus. It’s usually found growing on the leaves of citrus trees, but as a radiotrophic species it appears to find favour in environments like the Chernobyl nuclear reactor. Scientists are looking to use its ability to protect from the ill-effects of radiation to protect people in certain environments in space.

The unusual thing about the fungi found in the reactor was that they were not exisiting in spite of the radiation, but because of it. It does go to show that if there is a nuclear holocaust, some fungi will survive and contribute to the world that follows. That world probably wouldn’t have many humans in it.

It’s a problematic fungus for us humans in medical terms, causing a condition known as cryptococcosis.

Pripyat, Ukraine by Omar David Sandoval Sida, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Radioactive fungi: caesium-137

Far more problematic for us humans is the fact that the Chernobyl nuclear disaster released extremely dangerous levels of caesium-137 into the atmosphere. This of course directly affected ecosystems across Europe where the radiation spread. Fungi absorb their sources of nutrition from their surroundings, making them likely to absorb radiation also. This website has taken the incredible steps of listing which mushrooms are more likely to become radioactive, compared with those which aren’t.

What this all effectively means is that any lingering radiation in the environment will remain in the ecosystem because fungi will absorb it. I don’t have the information but do wonder if there are some mushrooms which may never be eaten again within a certain range of the Chernobyl exclusion zone.

This article points to a very striking impact of the radiation in woodlands in the exclusion zone. Basically, higher levels of radiation are causing a build up of leaf litter and woody debris, because fungi are inhibited and unable to perform their core ecosystem function of recycling. This means there are higher chances of fires breaking out and redistributing radioactive material.

I bet you wish you never read this post.

Thanks for reading anyway. Solidarity with Ukraine ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ฆ

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From Brockenhurst to Lyndhurst in the New Forest ๐Ÿ‘ฃ

In April I walked from Brockenhurst to Lyndhurst and back in the space of two days. This post focuses on the first day walking from Brockenhurst railway station.

Iโ€™ve created a route of the walk here.

These are probably the New Forest’s biggest towns, with Brockenhurst being bigger than Bournemouth until the advent of the railways in the mid to late-1800s.

I’ve walked many times in the New Forest. It’s an exceptional place for ancient trees, birds and for fungi. But visiting it this time it felt like it was suffering from an absence of rain, it looked thirsty. In many of the more open landscapes it looked bare and over-grazed. On these two warm and sunny days I didnโ€™t see a single butterfly! These are just my own observations and may not be accurate.

A trackway that leads into Roydon Woods from nearby Brockenhurst opens the door to the walk.

A disused barn with oak planks

A New Forest pony grazing

I found very little fungi. The whole Forest appeared to be exceptionally dry for the time of year. This is probably lumpy bracket.

The trackway through Roydon Woods, now fenced on all sides since I last visited in 2019.

There were a few of these flies basking in the sun. I think they are St, Markโ€™s flies or similar.

The sporophytes of juniper hair cap moss growing on a wood bank.

There is something quite muscular about this dead standing oak, no doubt full of life on the inside.

The arrival of birch leaves is one of my favourite sights each spring.

A close up of moss photosynthesising

I had no idea that this bracken stalk had a little insect sat atop it. That often happens with macro images.

Greater stitchwort flower

Walking along the track a bird on a stump caught my eye. I realised it was a nuthatch and managed to catch a photo of it before it flew to cover. They are usually high in the treetops. This silent bird may have been gathering food for nestlings.

The Lymington River

Primroses and celandines gathering around the mossy buttresses of an oak

Ash dieback has changed the look and feel of parts of the older woodlands around Brockenhurst. The woodland is more open and clearly depleted. Ash trunks lie as if storm ravaged. This is good conservation woodland management for fungi and deadwood invertebrates.

Wood anemones at their peak, surrounded by dogs mercury, another plant of ancient woodland

A triple decker of Ganoderma bracket fungus on the remains of a beech tree

Carvings of an owl and oak leaves made in this dead tree

Arriving on Beaulieu Heath I was baffled by the sights of what looked like chalk downland in the distance. Looking at the map it appeared to be the Isle of Wight!

One of the few fungi I found, a small bracket on a fallen branch

The first beech leaves: they can be eaten (not sure if they affect people with allergies) and also used to make gin. They are soft at first but like their oak relatives will soon toughen up.

A winding forestry trail where the landscape becomes less diverse and the understory generally thins out. This is more of a plantation landscape.

Cladionia lichens on a piece of old pine wood

Can you see the crab spider here? I was astonished. It had matched the red and green of the wood spurge it was hiding in. Crab spiders are known to be able to mimic colours of plants around them. This seemed so specific, as the spurge will not keep the reddish colour for long.

One of my favourite beech trees, encrusted in white lichens

A selection of images showing the lichen communities that can be found in some parts of the Forest.

Ferns acting as epiphytes on this heavily leaning oak tree

To finish, before arriving in Lyndhurst, a selection of beech trees and one with a massive Ganoderma bracket.

Thanks for reading.

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Tree lungwort lichen in western Ireland ๐Ÿ„

Since 2013 I have been visiting a small area of ‘Celtic rainforest’ I know in Co. Mayo in Western Ireland. It’s hard to find much ecologically significant woodland in Mayo, a place of vast peat bogs, wetlands and where the woodlands are largely low diversity plantations of spruce and larch. Nine years ago I found one woodland on the map and asked my parents if they wouldn’t mind dropping me off there. In March 2022 I had about 30 minutes to check in on this real gem of an oak woodland.

I don’t want to give the name of the woodland openly because it is incredibly sensitive and is already experiencing the impacts of anti-social behaviour (fires, litter, human waste… not that you would head straight there to mess it up!) but if you want to know the details you can contact me via email for info (unlockinglandscapes@gmail.com). It’s one of the special Western Atlantic oak woodlands which the western edges of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland are known for. This woodland is rich in ancient woodland plantlife and is also good for fungi, as you might expect due to the long-term stability of ancient woodland species communities.

Upon entering I spotted the little red traffic light of a scarlet elf cup in among the moss. This is a species which thrives in damp and shady woodlands near water.

The woodland here is close to a large lough so it is never short on moisture.

I was astonished to find this naturally-occuring terrarium on the woodland floor. Someone had chucked a jar here and the mosses and other plantlife had colonised it.

Anyway, I was here to check for an uncommon lichen in the UK & Ireland – tree lungwort, Lobaria pulmonaria. It’s a massive lichen that can be found in these ‘Celtic rainforest‘ habitats. The Woodland Trust say it’s an incredibly rare habitat.

After a few minutes of searching where I had found it back in 2017, I saw this. It is a seriously impressive species.

I was so pleased to find the tree lungwort again. It’s unlike similar organisms we find in the UK. It makes far more of its fungal elements than other lichens through its size and spread. Remember: in lichens, fungi provide the physical structure and fruiting mechanism (usually a cup-style spore shooter), while the cyanobacteria or algae are able to photosynthesise and harvest energy from the sunlight.

The oak trees in Celtic rainforest provide habitat for plants as well as lichen. There are often modest ivy vines trailing the trunk, as well as other epiphytes such as ferns and mosses:

Another thing I noticed was oaks leafing on the 31st March. This may be the earliest I have ever seen oak come into leaf, but the race between ash and oak is certainly a contest. The old saying of “If the oak before the ash, then we’ll only have a splash, if the ash before the oak, then we’ll surely have a soak” doesn’t quite play out from my experience. The very warm March we’ve experienced in the British Isles has possibly more of a role to play in this than traditional benign weather or climate patterns might.

One thing I learned from observing the other communities of tree lungwort were that the lichen seemed to prefer younger trees. I didn’t observe any on more mature specimens of oak. There didn’t appear to be a lot of oak regenaration but then again there was no danger of overgrazing due to the quite isolated nature of the woodland, its lough-side location and livestock being nowhere near.

Another lichen I observed was one of the pixie cup lichens in the Cladonia group but I couldn’t tell you the exact species.

There were many candidates for #StickOfTheWeek, so much so that there wasn’t even much of a stick to look at!

Thanks for reading

Further fungi

Fungi ๐Ÿ„: March smatterings

Last week I went for a walk in rather grey and glowery weather. It was in hope of seeing some earlier spring signs but was more a reminder that winter persists.

I found a small collection of glistening inkcaps, along with one of my favourite large brackets. Those are pictured here with my hand for scale.

Otherwise there were some small polypores (probably turkey tail) and a few lichens that had been enriched by recent rain.

Life is rather full-on at the moment so Iโ€™m not finding the time or energy to write something longer or more detailed. Itโ€™s also a mental thing, just donโ€™t have a lot to say. Photography will be the focus in posts for a little while.

Thanks for reading.

Solidarity with the people of Ukraine ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ฆ

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