The cheeseburger fungus 🍔

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 Sussex Weald: Autumn sunset at Cowdray Park

A new blog post series of single images, maybe, to counteract the decline of Twitter and the TikTok-isation of Instagram? This image was taken at Cowdray Park near Midhurst on Monday 14th November. It was a stunning autumn evening, with trees in shades of gold, yellow and orange all the way to the sumptuous Downs.

Fungi 🍄: keeping up with the polypores

This week I stumbled across two of the more charismatic polypores you can find at this time of year. Polypores are bracket fungi that grow like shelves, usually from a tree trunk but sometimes also at the base or from a branch.

On a morning walk I went to check on the progress of a polypore I’d spotted several months ago (pictured above in late June 2021!), growing at the base of a large oak tree.

Oak bracket is one I posted about almost exactly a year ago during a visit to Suffolk. It also goes by the name of weeping conk, with a scientific name of Pseudoinonotus dryadeus. It’s a parasitic species, which means that this tree may be suffering some internal, ‘mechanical’ trouble. I hope not because it’s one of the largest in the area and is right next to a path. This makes it much higher up the chopping order if public health might be deemed to be at risk. I will never forget being taught that trees weren’t a hazard until we showed up.

This is a very attractive fungus, if you like a dough that drips caramel. It grows at a fairly critical part of the tree, where it meets the ground. It’s crucial because the tension of the roots holding the trunk upright.

Look into those hundreds of caramel eyes and tell me this is not one of the most beautiful fungi out there.

Later that evening I cycled out to the countryside on what was the end of a September heatwave. The landscape was very dry and smelly. I could smell the manure from my house two miles away in the daytime. That evening I became acquainted with the stench up close – muck spreading in the fields. It was absolutely rank, undoubtedly made far worse by the heat and lack of rain.

My route took me past the 800-year-old Sun Oak. Like the large oak I saw earlier that morning, this tree was also home to a charismatic polypore fungus.

This red button is a beefsteak fungus, Fistulina hepatica. It may also have been a red button – do not press the red button. Unless you want to continue watching this programme (BBC joke).

Oh go on then.

In reality this fungus will grow out to form something that looks like a human bodily organ (hepatica). It’s often on oak or sweet chestnut, especially more mature trees. It’s another parasitic species but it’s said to grow too slowly to ever cause the tree structural problems. We should remember that these fungi have been growing with their hosts for potentially millions of years. It’s the impact we have had on their habitats that have made the trouble. Check yourself before you wreck everything else.

Here’s a recent example that cost me several milligrams in blood as the mosquitos were hanging out under this tree waiting for me to arrive. Beefsteak indeed.

Thanks for reading.

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#FungiFriday: weeping conk at Ickworth Park

Fungi Friday 4th September 2020

This week’s post is coming to you live from my phone. I’m on holiday, sans PC et laptop, blissfully. In fact, a friend has just sent me a pic of a fungus on WhatsApp, so it’s like a digital mycelium bristling onto life between my palms. Sounds so weird.

Suffolk is the stage for this week’s #FungiFriday, a county of underperforming football teams and myriad beautiful cottages. Not least the one where Harry Potter was born.

If Suffolk is the macrocosm, the National Trust’s Ickworth Park is the microcosm, where the fungi made their appearances to me in this week of weeks.

I only became a member of the Trust a couple of years ago but I now regularly visit their properties and estates because there are just so many in Sussex, compared to south London. I have come to know some of their employees and understand the work they do. I think there are few finer organisations in their sector.

In more recent developments their attempts to interrogate the role of slavery in their cultural archive makes me proud to be a member, alongside their commitment to welcoming everyone to their sites and properties. They are also exceptional when it comes to the conservation of and investment in ancient woodland landscapes, places I, like many across the world, have a deep personal affection for. In my view, The National Trust shows us that being rural and ‘traditional’ is no excuse for failing to champion diversity and inclusion, or to shine a light on the darker sides of British culture. If you feel like that ‘cancels your history’ then you won’t like my blog! 😬

Within minutes of entering Ickworth Park proper, I noticed an unusual growth from the side of a large oak tree. Seconds later it dawned on me – it was a fungus.

Upon closer inspection I found that this was a special fungus, one that comes to life at this time of year. It’s weeping conk, a bracket fungus that exudes the water it draws out from the tree/soil.

My companion approached this fungus with disgust but within 30 seconds was in complete awe of its caramel-coloured droplets. It goes to show how conditioned we are to find so much in nature disgusting, when really it is cause for fascination.

The more you look, the more it looks like dessert.

I even managed to get a bit of bokeh (blurred circles of light in the top right) in to garnish this special fungus.

Ickworth was an exceptional site for ancient and veteran oak trees. In my experience, this equals fungi. This is because soils are often more ancient, undisturbed and stable, where fungi thrive along with all the other organisms they interlink with. The above was one of the larger old oaks that we passed by along the main paths.

I said I thought the National Trust were excellent in managing ancient woodland landscapes and I flippin’ meant every word. One thing they understand so well is the need to plant to replace trees being lost now and in the next century.

Next week I’ll share some more finds from Suffolk, including an epic visit to Bradfield Woods. Things are popping up out there and autumn is showing its fruity signs.

Thanks for reading.

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