Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Honey fungus’

Fungi Friday 16th October 2020

I visited the Surrey Hills in the North Downs last week. Autumn was pushing through lots of tree species, but the oak and birch still held green. I was expecting to find more mushrooms, judging by the glut of shrooms splurged across social media in the past week.

This is the moody view from Box Hill, one of southern England’s best known beauty spots. Box Hill is part of the North Downs, a ridge of chalk that runs between Farnham in Surrey to the white (green) cliffs of Dover. The North Downs, like its southern sister, is covered by chalk grassland and woodland habitats, overlooking the clay soils of the Weald which are interlaced with sandy heathland.

I was expecting to see more mushrooms because of the recent rain and the time of year (autumn, FYI). There were a few fly agarics (check out this great thread on Twitter) but not much else. Perhaps London’s famous gangs of illegal foragers had got the train down and taken EVERYTHING.

I don’t think the foraging fyrd had been by, because these parasols were getting ready in the grasslands. Also I don’t know if they even exist to be honest. How it started (above).

How it’s going.

The amanita family were present in the form of what is probably a false-deathcap. The biggest hoard was to be found in an area of woodland, as you might have guessed.

In June I wrote a post about honey fungus and how disliked it is. It’s not really bothered though because it’s grown to be the biggest living organism on/in Earth (I think). This batch of honey fungus is the biggest spread of fungi I, have, ever, seen. The mushrooms are popping up from a widely spread mycelium in the soil.

Looking at the individual mushrooms I think this is ringless honey fungus because it lacks a collar or ring on the stipe.

Then again, looking at another spread growing around an old stump, there do appear to be turtlenecks going on.

My friend Jess was keen to show some love for the honey fungi. The decaying trunk the mushrooms are sprouting from should be a reminder of how important ‘dead’ or decaying wood is in the world.

I am currently reading The Overstory by Richard Powers. I was given it as a birthday present (and funnily enough also passed a copy by Jess) mainly because it’s a novel about trees. It’s a complex, multi-protagonist story that comes together around the clearance of ancient old-growth woodlands in North America. One of the characters is a woodland ecologist who gives evidence in court as to why old-growth woodland should be protected from logging. It’s a brilliant scene, and it has a quote in it which really hit home with me:

“I sometimes wonder whether a tree’s real task on Earth isn’t to bulk itself up in preparation to lying dead on the forest floor for a long time.”

The amount of life found in the decaying tissue of a fallen tree that no longer grows outnumbers that found in living trees. Yet deadwood has been cleared from European temperate woodlands to such an extent (hi Forestry, I know, you’re changing) that many species dependent on this habitat are at risk of extinction.

Honey fungus is just one species that creates deadwood habitat for insects, spiders and other species which depend on it. These deadwood invertebrates are the most threatened species group in Europe. If you can do anything in the space you have, be it a private or a public space, please add some dead wood. It will make more difference than perhaps you realise.

Thanks for reading.

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Fungi Friday 26th June 2020

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

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

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

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

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The mycelium of honey fungus

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

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

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

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Fresh fruiting bodies of honey fungus on an ash stump

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

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

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

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Honey fungus on the raised rootplate of a fallen tree

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading.

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Ben Vrackie as seen from Clunie Wood

Fungi Friday 17th April 2020 via September 2018

For another week the Covid-19 pandemic is keeping me away from the woods and therefore the shrooms. To be honest though, my town is so deserted at the moment that I am kind of hoping some shrooms start popping up soon in the paving. Especially considering there is rain coming today.

I had been intending to post about some fantastic fungal hiking experiences (sounds weird) from a 2018 visit to Scotland but work and life stopped me. I have three hikes to share with you which should get you through the next three weeks of lockdown. I do hope anyone reading this is doing well and that you’re following the guidance.

These posts remind me of my uncle Joe Reilly who passed away in November. Joe was a Glaswegian by birth who, along with my aunt Marg, introduced me to some of the most beautiful places the UK has to offer in Perthshire, among so many other gifts. I would visit Marg and Joe in Perthshire as often as I could, often in autumn when going to meet my hiking companion Eddie (seen here) for a jaunt in the Cairngorms. Joe fell for fungi like I did in recent years and I will always miss his WhatsApp messages with mushrooms he had found on Perthshire walks. We miss his thirst for life terribly but carry it on just as he did.

This week I’m reminiscing about a great walk in the wooded hills of Pitlochry.

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The walk was on a Friday afternoon from the door of our guesthouse in Pitlochry but can also be done from Pitlochry railway station. It’s a stunning place, close to the southern border of the Cairngorms National Park. My friend Eddie lives in Glasgow and his journey was a wee bit quicker than mine from Sussex. Above you can see Eddie not at all incongruous in the landscape All these pics are taken with the amazing Canon Powershot G7X MII in RAW format and processed in Adobe Lightroom.

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Scotland has deliciously wet and humid woodlands which in some parts constitute what is affectionately known as ‘Celtic Rainforest’. This is my habitat, the milder temperatures and shadier conditions far better suit my Celtic biology (which is not actually something that exists in Science).

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These birch trees were host to large hoof fungus brackets and many foliose lichens. These are commonly found on the acidic soils of heather moorland that covers so much of the Scottish Highlands.

These dead standing trees are a vital source of biodiversity in woodlands. They are the thing we have lost but are slowly, very slowly, returning to the landscape thanks to sensitive management.

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In Clunie Wood I found my first ever jelly babies. These are a bizarre species that do look like the sweets. They were growing in large numbers under shade in a wet area alongside the path.

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At the edge of a plantation we found a huge fly agaric.

Here is Eddie getting a pic which gives a sense of scale. September seems a good month for fly agaric in the Highlands of Scotland.

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The conditions were perfect for fungi and these beautiful bonnet mushrooms were alongside lichens on a tree stump.

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This quite hilarious clump of mushrooms (they were growing from one small stump… had to be there) are probably a type of honey fungus described in Latin as Oystoyae.

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This cheeky slime mould was another sign of the exceptional conditions with the mixture of broadleaf woodland and conifer plantation providing lots of moisture.

I always think orange peel fungus is some kind of plastic pollution. Having worked in urban nature conservation it reminds me of litter picks pulling old bits of traffic cone out of the soil!

At the edge of the woodland the beautiful heather moorland appears and views expand into the Grampian Mountains of the Cairngorms National Park.

Thanks for reading and keep dreaming!

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Loch Lomond, Scotland, September 2019

I am very fortunate to be able to visit relatives at the foot of the Scottish Highlands. It’s a landscape that I first experienced when visiting family in Perthshire and Stirlingshire about 10 years ago. My family haven taken me to visit the dramatic hills north of Perth, places like the Pass of Killicrankie, the ancient Birnam oak and sycamore, and Rob Roy’s grave in Balquhidder. My cousin was married in Pitlochry one Christmas and the misty woods of the southern Scottish Highlands left their mark on my sense of the place: dark, mysterious and forbidding. Little did I know that it was so close to an ancient continental clash, the Highland Boundary Fault:

Around 430 million years ago two small continents, one equating to modern Scandinavia and the other to the eastern seaboard of North America slammed, geologically speaking, into each other throwing up a vast mountain range similar in many respects to the modern Himalayas. At the height of the uplifting phase the peaks may have breached even the 30,000ft ceiling. – via Greg Murray, Scotlandinfo.eu

Those mountains thrown up are the Scottish Highlands, themselves now ground down to the rounded hills they largely present themselves to be. Just imagine, two continents once with their own flora and fauna now fused together.

The Highland Boundary Fault actually cuts through the northern part of Loch Lomond. If my geology is correct this picture was taken on the south-eastern side of the fault. Two worlds, long since collided.

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Like so many of the landscapes we hold dear in the UK, Loch Lomond was formed by the retreating glaciers over a period over several hundred thousand years. On the shore this oak tree protruded from an area of soil, still managing to survive with most of its roots probably under water.

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Oaks don’t like it too wet in the UK, unlike willow, aspen or alder, the last of which actually needs flowing water to prosper. Oaks like soil that drains well which makes this one all the more unusual. Like everything in nature, there will be an explanation.

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Loch Lomond is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, made more diverse by the series of islands that are dotted across the surface of the lake. The result of the messy retreat of glaciers, dragging rocks and debris along with them, the ensuing flow of water from the melting ice carving out more of the landscape and filling it with water.

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Along the shores of Loch Lomond, Western Atlantic Woodlands grow mossy and wild. More civilised was the flow of walkers along the West Highland Way. Americans, Germans, French, English and indeed Scots were present in a constant flow (bar the pic above). I know this type of woodland as Celtic Rainforest. They are found in the western, wet areas of the British Isles such as here in Scotland, Wales, south-western England and western Ireland. They abound with mosses and liverworts, and they drip with lichens. They get branded as Celtic from the fact they exist in areas where the ancient Celtic-speaking tribes of Britain presided. They consist of oak, birch and hazel in the main.

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For anyone who has seen this website before it will come as no surprise to read that I was on the lookout for fungi. I found this species of what I reckon might be a kind of honey fungus (Armillaria) and some pleasing spreads of sulphur tuft:

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These mushrooms were at a part in the West Highland Way where walkers would pause to catch their breath. I heard lots of snapshots of conversations here, like the two Americans remarking that Donald Trump was a conspiracy theorist (no, really?).

I was quizzed by a couple from Yorkshire about what I would do with the fungi photos.

‘Do you print them or put them in an album?’ a woman asked.

‘I put them online, usually,’ I said. ‘But the main thing is to enjoy being out here.’

I was trying to sound virtuous, then again they were the ones who were walking the near-100 miles of the trail in pretty woeful conditions before then. The woman showed me that she had a film camera with her, a passion she had held for decades. More than anything when looking for or photographing mushrooms, the pleasure is in the moment of finding something, be it new, interesting or unusual.

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Before heading back beyond the Highland Fault to visit my family for the evening, I was taken aback to hear a raven low in an oak, belting out its call. I had never seen one so close. It sounded so much like its words were oak, oak, oak!

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Whatever it meant, the raven surely could not have known that its flight across Loch Lomond took in two continents.

Thanks for reading.

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