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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#FungiFriday: a quick guide to five edible mushrooms

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Fungi Friday 21st August 2020

This week I thought I would write a post answering the most common question regarding fungi – which ones can you eat?

Disclaimer: I am not encouraging you to forage without following a code of respect for nature, wildlife, habitats and the environment. Your desire to eat wild food is not more important than the thing you are trying to forage or the habitats those species depend on to exist. Learn your foraging rights and exercise them with restraint. Respect habitats and know what you are picking.

Here are five well-known species:

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Cep (Boletus edulis)

There are few other places to start with edible mushrooms. This mushrooms is known in Italy as porcini, America as king bolete, France as cep and England as pennybun. When finding ceps you’ll need to ensure they haven’t been eaten through by larvae from the ground up. This is done by cutting the mushroom where it’s attached to the soil and looking at the condition of the stipe. Ceps can be eaten raw in salads and are also good in risotto. I’ve only ever eaten them in restaurants. They grow in woodlands, plantations and on heathlands.

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Chantarelle (Cantharellus cibarius)

Chantarelles are a species I’ve only ever seen twice in the wild and I’ve never eaten one. I’ve eaten horn of plenty but they were a gift from Spain. This is the time of year to be looking for chantarelles (August-September). They are a yellowy-orange colour and look a bit like splattered egg yolk from above. People who reliably find chantarelles often have a patch that they return to each year. Not to be confused with false chantarelle. Later in the autumn trumpet chantarelles are another edible relative (that is a phrase you don’t hear often). I’ve found them growing on heathland.

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Chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus)

I saw a couple of specimens of chicken of the woods this week, but the best time to find them is May-June. This is an easy to identify fungus which grows mostly on oak, but also on sweet chestnut and even yew. Often it grows on fallen tree trunks. Never, ever, eat this if it grows on yew. Yews are poisonous and the fungus will absorb the toxins. It’s important to know that some fungi absorb pollution, so be careful where you are picking things. They are best eaten when younger. This species is important for invertebrates so don’t hoover everything up. That should be the consideration at all times.

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Amethyst deceiver (Laccaria amethystina)

This is a very small, common mushroom in woodland. Sometimes they are so small you completely miss them down in leaf litter. In 2019 on a single visit to a favourite woodland I found thousands of them growing. They are a beautifully photogenic species and when in good light they have a lovely amethyst glow. They can be found from August to November. They have to be picked in larger numbers to be worth cooking.

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Common puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum)

Giant puffballs are famous for the their unusual size and the fact you can, well, eat them. A smaller cousin of the giant puffball is the common puffball. This species grows on the woodland floor and can be found throughout the autumn. I often find them at the edges of footpaths, which are not great places to find anything you ever want to eat. I think common puffballs look like submarine bread rolls with their speckled caps.

Thanks for reading. Don’t do anything stupid.

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#FungiFriday: Chicken of the woods

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Fungi Friday 15th May 2020

I mentioned a fungi photo project which I was working on, watching the development of a fungus on my daily exercise ration. Both of those things have now been foraged and are consigned to the past. We can go out for a walk more than once a day, and my subject has been sliced and munched by someone who knows what they’re doing.

I was watching the slow mushrooming of a chicken of the woods fruiting body on a circular walk from my house but its progress was interrupted last week. Now the post looks wafer thin. Here’s how it played out on Twitter:

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I first saw this mushroom developing on 25th April on a fallen oak tree next to a footpath, lodged between farmland and a wooded estate.

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Three days later I passed it again under twilight and the advancement was pretty clear.

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I also felt it looked quite a lot like Mark Twain, one of the great American writers. His characters sure ate plenty a chicken in the woods, sure did.

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Chicken of the woods is a highly desirable edible fungus for people who desire that sort of thing. It’s one that’s easy to identify and is not known to have any serious side-effects. I have noted ecologists arguing that it should be left for the many species of invertebrate that find a home in it.

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The images above show a chicken of the woods fruiting body with some of the invertebrates hanging out on it. Believe me, there were so many more.

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At this stage, on May Day, the chick was beginning to make its way in the world.

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Four days later, it was positively enjoying life. Then, this happened:

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The moral of this story is: we all get foraged in the end.

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Here you can see the clean cuts of someone who knows what they’re doing. They’ve brought a knife with them on their walk and have made an attempt to not damage the mycelium which is attached to the dead wood itself, and not visible here.

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I’ve found some pretty epic chicks in the past, like this 1-2m long gathering on a fallen oak or sweet chestnut next to a river in West Sussex. It’s the biggest one I’ve ever seen. It does make me laugh how bites have been taken from the side, possibly the teeth of deer which are common in this area.

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This one is several months old and had begun the process of falling apart. This is in July and is probably a June fruiting body.

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This is the same day, and here Richard’s coat was not dissimilar to the fungus itself. He is a bit of a chicken in the woods at times, too.

Thanks for reading.

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