Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Mushrooms’

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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.

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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.

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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.

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New Forest - 23-10-17 -1 djg (1)

The New Forest, October 2017

In Roydon Woods the sycamore leaves are falling. Though they won’t lie for anywhere near as long as beech leaves, they are something of a sheet across the ground, like papers dropped and never collected. One leaf is caught on the barbed wire of the neighbouring fenceline, and I never can tell whether it’s the work of the wind or someone trying to make a point.

Over the past few days rain has returned to southern England. But if you put a spade in the ground the dampness is only a few millimetres thick. It doesn’t bode well for a mushroom search.

Earthballs sit as their name suggests, as scaly mainstays. Clouded funnels, their caps like an Americano dusted with air pollution, have fruited and now teeter on crumbling stipes.

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A low roar carries across the open wood, where deer have established a browsing-line removing the thicket layer. It’s not the sound of a machine but a rutting stag. It is their time. Content that its voice is distant I carry on along the path, drifting off on occasion to find softer layers of leaf litter.

The stag roars again.

In amongst stumps and mosses are miniscule bonnets, perhaps. They fruit so quickly and root only lightly. In another spot a patch of orange waxcap-like mushrooms bulge, beside them a row of coral fungi that are only seen after the long pause of wondering what the orange ones might be.

Crouched down with the coral a grey blur passes in the corner of my eye. I look up – nothing. The sound of galloping hoofs and a female deer is chased by a stag with a small set of antlers. Remaining still, not twenty-feet away I look back to the path, and join it again. The deer, with its white tush and black-edged buttocks, watches me with its head turned, I walk on so as not to become part of this conflict, the stags still roaring in the distance.

I stop for lunch and to write this under a favourite beech tree. There are lots of animals moving around where I sit. A flock of blue and great tits hop around the leaves of fallen branches, a frog leaps out from the remnants of a children’s weekend den. It gave me a fright, a wood sprite bursting into life.

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The rule is simple: sit, wait, be still, be silent, and you will see things.

From the field at the edge of Roydon Woods the horses are startled and begin to gallop. I stand to look and along the adjacent path a stag trots, horse-like, too. He, again, is twenty-feet away. He sees me, stops and heads off into the dead bracken and birch trees that surround the beech tree I stand under.

I think it’s gone, but looking again I see a pair of antlers facing me in the bracken. Then I see its eyes, it watches me, head on. Then it runs away, crashing through thick, hard bracken and birch twigs.

Worried by its closeness and size, I get moving again back towards the path. What I think is a false deathcap mushroom sits under leaves at the edge of the bank.

A gun shot is fired, one more, and another.

It rings out, fading into the open woodland like a vapour. The stag – the shots came from the direction it had headed into. I recall its face, perhaps that first gallop, was it running for its life?

New Forest archive

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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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Autumn 2015 in southern England began with a prolonged dry period reminiscent of 2011. This meant that a lot of fungus was late to fruit. Other than a September burst of honey fungus, there was little to see until the rain came and enriched the thirsty mycelia of British woods and meadows. Here is my year in mushrooms:

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Oyster mushrooms, Pleurotus ostreatus

One of my favourite things to photograph is mushrooms, yet the act of closing the shutter is often only a small part of the experience. I can go looking for mushrooms and sometimes come away with very few photos. I have to walk until I find something, heading to the right place at the right time of year to find it. I know plenty of fungi enthusiasts who pick and cut mushrooms to identify them, a key process in understanding a species. As a photographer I see no reason for me to pick them. I’m much happier leaving the specimen where it is so someone else can come along and enjoy it, as short-lived as many fruiting bodies are. If it’s a fungal foray to raise awareness and celebrate mushrooms, picking them is great.

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Bonnet mushrooms, Mycena on a dead oak tree

September to November is the right time to head out looking for the larger spreads of mushrooms, though they can be found all year round. I find enormous pleasure in that early autumn period when the moisture levels are right (fungal fruiting bodies are 90% water) and fungus abounds from every fallen tree, even the most barren of parkland funked out by funnels, inkcaps and fairy-rings.

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One of the most sought-after edible mushrooms is the cep, Boletus edulis

I found a cep, Boletus edulis under a rhododendron bush in the New Forest in October. It didn’t quite match the images of bountiful porcinis (the Italian name for the cep, also known as the penny bun) but I still had no desire to take it home with me. Fungi engages people like very few wild plants or animals can, mainly because they are renowned for their edibility and their poison. From my understanding, mushroom picking is not as popular in England as it is in Poland, Estonia, the Czech Republic, France or Italy. Indeed, perhaps it is the Mediterranean influence over British culinary culture that has seen mushrooms become such a hot topic in debates about sustainable foraging. In Britain we lack the vast wooded landscapes of Transylvania, of the Tatras, Dolomites or Pyrenees. Perhaps our landscape is mycologically impoverished.

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An inkcap, Coprinus or brittlestem, Psathyrella, I wasn’t quite sure

One thing that always interests me is a land manager’s attitude to foraging mushrooms. The City of London own many excellent nature reserves on the outskirts of the city and they have a no picking policy. Likewise many urban nature reserves discourage visitors from picking mushrooms. The Forestry Commission have a mushroom code, allowing only a certain weight of mushrooms to be picked and the clear message that only mature fruiting bodies should be plucked. It depends what your interest is, but as an observer I err on the side that fungi has an important role to play in an ecosystem and should largely be left alone, especially in urban nature reserves. At the same time I appreciate that it’s unproven that collecting mushrooms has any meaningful impact on the mycelium itself. As a conservationist, I tend to support the land manager’s picking only with permission, as difficult to enforce as it may be.

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A fly you’ll often find on the cap of a mushroom

Fungi has a massive role in the health of woods. Species like beech, birch and oak have a strong dependency on fungi to provide them with nutrients and minerals that are otherwise impossible to retrieve from the soil. The mycelium of a fungus which fruits from the soil lives underground. The mycelium is made up of hyphae which extend through the soil, feeding on decomposing matter. The hyphae sheath the root hairs of a tree and a trade takes place between tree and fungus, a symbiotic relationship. The tree can delegate where the hyphae should extend in search of nutrients. The hyphae can then pass the nutrients into the tree via the root hairs. Water is often passed in return to the hyphae to nourish the mycelium and make the production of fruiting bodies (mushrooms) all the more possible. Experiments have been done to show that these mychorrizal relationships boost the growth of trees greatly. This is why the idea to dig up trees and replant them elsewhere to protect ancient woods is impossible. The soil is crucial. Trees are not everything.

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A cup fungus

Fungi has made me think very carefully about the camera equipment I use. The diversity of species means that there are an array of lenses and cameras you can use. There is no perfect set up. I use a Sigma 105mm f2.8 macro lens to capture the smallest of mushrooms. Lying on my stomach in the New Forest revealed many incredible things hidden away that I would otherwise not have noticed. A macro lens, though often a costly investment, can open up a new appreciation for nature.

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A tiny species of bonnet, Mycena

Some of my favourite species to photograph are bonnets (Mycena) and parachutes (Mirasmius). They are so incredibly tiny but so common, simply searching for them is an adventure. Again, the best place for these is woods with a thick layer of leaf litter, but they can also be found on mossy logs, and even on the end of sticks.

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Twig parachute, Mirasmiellus ramealis

At the RSPB’s Blean Woods in Kent I crouched for many minutes, fearful of dogs weeing on me, to photograph this twig parachute. It measured barely a few millimetres across. I found it because I knew where to look. My knees ache still.

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Orange peel fungus, Aleuria aurantia

Not all fungi is especially beautiful or in beautiful places. Many mushrooms are in poor condition because their time in the limelight is very short and they are affected directly by weather and other environmental factors. Slugs eat them, flies mate on them, people step on them. I found this orange peel fungus (Aleuria aurantia) on an embankment near Oxted, Kent outside a haulage company depot. The bank had been denuded of trees, their stumps poisoned. But the thing about nature is that it doesn’t care about how crap a place looks if the opportunity for propagation exists. This fungus looked more like some plastic debris half submerged in the ground.

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Lycogola terrestre

Also not all of the beautiful fungus you find is actually fungus. One spot I return to each year, a dank log pile next to a path in some dark beech woodland, is lit up by Lycogola terrestre. This is no fungus but instead a slime mould. This is an extreme close up of one of the fruiting bodies which appears on a bed of moss in a very small area.

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Shaggy inkcaps, Coprinus comatus growing next to new burial plots

Another of fungi’s pleasures is an ability to surprise. Millions of spores are released by a single mushroom (30,000 million an hour by a mature bracket fungus) and so it is unsurprising to find mushrooms growing in the streets. At Camberwell Old Cemetery in south-London, four-year-old burial space has been a successful breeding ground for shaggy inkcap (Coprinus comatus). I used a 300mm telephoto lens to photograph the scene above. Seeing as the graves were newly-laid I didn’t want to intrude.

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Honey waxcap, Hygrocybe reidii

The best grasslands to find fungi are either ancient grasslands like Farthing Downs where I photographed this honey waxcap, or church yards. Waxcaps (Hygrocybe) are a strong indicator of the age of grassland. There are over 1000 species in the UK, their burst of colour in the winter doldrums add life to otherwise dormant meadows. The mild winter this year meant that waxcaps were fruiting alongside field scabious, knapweed and even yellow rattle on Farthing Downs.

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Coral fungus growing in the lawn of a Dorset church yard

In church yards the lack of grazing pressure and the ‘respectful’ management of the turf means that there are likely to be well established mycelia under the graveyard lawns. These are excellent hunting grounds for corals, Ramaria. The problem is they’re often so small it can be difficult to get a good image from a cumbersome DSLR. Instead I use my camera phone to try and get a closer look. It has a fancy in-built lens and can manual focus as if turning the focus ring of a DSLR lens by using the screen. The results were very pleasing.

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An ancient pollard oak on Ashtead Common

The best places to find fungi are woods and meadows, generally those that are either ancient or relatively well established nature reserves which are sensitively managed. One of the new places I visited was Ashtead Common in Surrey. Ashtead Common is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and National Nature Reserve (NNR), mainly designated for its ancient pollard oaks. This collection of old trees means the diversity of fungal and invertebrate life is very high. The City of London manage their reserves very well indeed and Ashtead Common proved to be one of the best early sites to visit.

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The rich leaf litter in Blean Woods

RSPB’s Blean Woods NNR is a wonderful place for wildlife in general, not merely fungi. It is a vast network of woods that flank the city of Canterbury adding a level of sylvan mystery. Blean Woods is broken up into different habitats, with spots of heathland, birch and sweet chestnut coppice which provide vital nesting opportunities for nightingales and enough light when cut to support common cow wheat, the food plant of the endangered heath fritillary butterfly. In October the woodland floor was covered by a sea of black mushrooms that, I discovered later, were horn of plenty (Craterellus cornucopioides).

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Roydon Woods

It’s hard to say there is a best place to find mushrooms due to the transient way the fruiting bodies appear. My favourite place has to be the New Forest in Hampshire. The above image is of the Wildlife Trusts’ Roydon Woods NNR, an ancient broadleaved wood very close to Brockenhurst. The New Forest was probably like Ashtead Common in centuries past, with a structure more reminiscent of wood pasture (or savannah) where the trees were less close together and the grasslands were sunnier and luxurious. Roydon Woods has the feel of a landscape that is untouched by people, though such a thing does not exist today. It is possible to spend a day there and meet very few visitors but all manner of mushrooms.

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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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