Last week I dropped in on a favourite Sussex Wildlife Trust woodland. It’s a place I only ever visit when travelling to or from work. It’s a place with a funny name, The Mens. It’s even funnier when I tell others I’m going to The Mens after work. The name is said to derive from the word ‘common’, a place where local people would have had foraging and grazing rights in centuries past. It’s now a significant ancient woodland in the Sussex Low Weald, holding National Nature Reserve status. It’s special because of its naturally occuring beech and holly, though I’m no expert on its specifics. It is a uniquely beautiful woodland. It is highly sensitive, and when I go I do my best to treat it with a high level of respect and care.
It’s one of the few places in SE/central southern England outside of the New Forest, that I have visited, where moss and algae cover tree trunks. Above is the typical assemblage of mature beech, oak and a surrounding sea of holly.
You can see indicators of how many mushrooms are likely to be in fruit when you first enter a reserve. I saw the above within the first few paces. It’s is a mushroom called spindleshankGymnopilus fusipes (to my knowledge, happy to be corrected), which grows around the buttresses of oak trees. In a separate recent walk, it was the most common fungus I saw, and so is enjoying a key fruiting period.
In terms of tree health, I wouldn’t say it was a ‘good’ sign because there is some decay going on and it is defined as a parasitic species. In a woodland like this, it is normal and part of the life of the woodland. It helps to disconnect ourselves from our normal notions of life and death when in woodlands, it doesn’t play out in the same way there. Dead and decaying trees are crucial to a woodland’s life and longevity.
Spindleshank is often first seen like the group below, bursting on the scene. It is probably attached to a root or piece of wood under the soil.
This was the only fruiting mushroom I found during the short walk but there was a large abundance of slime moulds growing on fallen wood and some standing trees.
These orangey-pink blobs are a slime mould known as wolf’s milk Lycogala epidendrum. It’s famous because you can pop it and it emits a gunk of the same colour. It’s quite cool.
You will find it on decaying wood that has been in situ for several years, often in shady and damp conditions.
This species looks a bit like slug eggs. As with most slime mould I find, I’m not sure of the species.
We have had a very wet time of it in southern England, which should be cause for celebration, really. This same species was making the most of the conditions.
My camera is capable of doing in-camera focus stacking. This means it can take several images at different focus depths and merge them together to make an image with everything in focus. This is a dream come true for macro photography, especially when the subject is so tiny.
This is a species of coral slime mould. I have seen so much of this in the past few days spent walking in oak woodlands in West Sussex. It’s clearly striking while the woodland is wet.
The light was low over the Arun valley. To the south the Sussex coast was a band of grey concrete, the horizon between sky and sea broken only by the pale sticks of the offshore wind farms. The Isle of Wight rested out at sea to the west like a great sleeping sloth.
The summer’s September siege has broken and autumn has washed in with cut-price temperatures and heavy rain. The fruits of this sudden shift will not be felt fully for a few weeks yet, so here is what I have found in the last of the warm September days.
Last week I visited a favourite nature reserve in West Sussex, managed by Sussex Wildlife Trust. It was the first time I’d manage to get there in perhaps a year, due to the pandemic and the remoteness of the site. It is one of the only places I know locally where you find such an abundance of moss and lichen on trees, suggesting excellent air quality. This is the kind of thing you see in the New Forest, as well as more highland landscapes.
I found porcelain fungus, this time hiding high up in a tree.
It is a reminder to me that if you see signs of smaller mushrooms, it can mean there are much more in other places that you may not have checked.
Rooting shank is a common summer mushroom which grows on wood submerged in soil. It gets its name from the root-like growth which attaches it deep into the soil. I almost always find it at the base of a tree.
Above is a species that is one of the earliest mushrooms to fruit, spindleshank. I find them most often along the lines of roots near the butresses of oaks. It is symptomatic of root trouble, usually with oak trees. In this blog, there is no trouble, as fungi get a free ride here and no anthropomorphic view of their world. That said, I won’t be focusing on fungal pathogens anytime soon. Awkward.
Later in the week I made a visit to another Sussex Wildlife Trust gem, Ebernoe Common. It was a hot day and the fungi were few.
This lovely scene is one of Ebernoe’s more open habitats, where trees like willow and crab apple are more dominant. It harks back to how wooded landscapes in Britain and Europe once appeared. These areas would have been grazed and kept open by livestock, allowing more light-loving tree species like crab apple and hawthorn to come to the fore. Here I found some blushing brackets hovering like UFOs on a fallen tree.
Fallen trees were the only place I found any fungi at all. This lovely turkeytail was growing on some birch trunks at the side of a path. This may be a varience on the more common turkeytail found. I love the progression in colours towards the tip.
This is a pretty rad example of a variant species, again growing at the side of a path on some fallen wood. Stunning.
There were signs of what is to come over the next two months. This is probably shaggy scalycap (Pholiota), pushing its way through the bark of a fallen tree like Wotsits, a cheesey wheat snack. With the rain that’s washing in at the time of writing, we should all be getting ready for mushroom season!
Unlike most annual reviews, this post shouldn’t include any reference to seismic political events which we are all likely sick and tired of. Instead, it’s a run through of some of the interesting mushrooms I’ve papped in the past 12 months. It also ends up being a seasonal review more than anything, because fungi is found mostly in the gentler bits of spring and the October-November phase before the cold weather snaps down. Expect references to camera equipment and a smattering of photography jargon that even I don’t understand.
You can read more about the ecology of mushrooms on my fungi page
There have been two things that have changed the nature of my fungi photos in the past year, one of them being the purchase of a compact camera. At the end of 2017 I bought a Canon Powershot G7X MII, a little camera that has allowed me to take photos of mushrooms in ways I couldn’t before.
This is because of the camera’s small size and the screen that flips round so I don’t need to lie down on the ground. Most of the time it’s actually impossible because some of the smaller mushrooms (usually the most interesting and unique) are down in amongst other debris and you need a small camera in there.
Another bonus is how light the thing is, though it has a bit of weight about it, it can be taken anywhere and charged off a USB. This means you can bring out a powerbank to charge it in the field or when trekking and you don’t need to spend £60 on batteries.
Above are some of the early pics I managed to get with the Powershot in and around Sydenham Hill Wood in south-east London. I took the photos in raw format and refined them (just colours, exposure, sharpness and a bit of cropping in Adobe Lightroom) to bring them closer to natural life.
Whatever you think of the photos, you’ve got to say they’re really sharp and as good as most Digital SLRs. I would say that if you don’t have a ‘decent’ camera and you want something light, portable and uncomplicated, it’s a great option.
However, one problem is the camera is so light it fell out of my pocket and I didn’t have it insured! I hope the person who found it is very happy with it. Anyway, back to the mushrooms.
Early summer months are a time of bracket fungi on trees and sudden eruptions of inkcaps after rain and milder temperatures. Hot dry weather is not good ‘shroom time.
It is, however, a time to appreciate the rock solid brackets that climb up the trunks of veteran trees.
This hollow beech tree at Slindon on the South Downs is a fine example of a veteran tree, characterful and fungus-clad. I have to admit to not having a passion for bracket fungi of this kind, but I do know that these species enter through a wound in the tree and establish their mycelium (network of fungal fibres) and produce a fruiting body, in this case the bracket you can see above, and pump their spores into the air.
One of the true highlights for people who forage wild food is the summer glut of chicken of the woods. This fungus is hard to miss and simple to identify when in good condition. It is mostly found on oak, though I found my first specimens on yew in 2018. Chicken of the woods on yew should never be eaten because of the poisonous nature of the tree. I’ve never eaten this fungus but a friend said that she got too excited about finding it ate too much of it last summer. A case of being bloated rather than sick. May-June is the prime time for this beast.
August can be a very wet month in the UK. In 2017 it was rainy and cool and in the mushroom world autumn happened in August, with a much weaker season over the typical October-November period. I visited Epping Forest in August 2018 to see if there was any repeat of 2017, but there was a very modest fungal showing. This was due to the extreme heat between June and July with very little rainfall in southern England. It’s an example of how climate change will effect our ecosystems and the species within them.
This is not the moon landing, it’s a giant puffball! These monsters grow in grasslands and were once used as footballs. Though I don’t eat wild mushrooms I know it can be used to make puffball burgers. It’s one of those mushrooms that makes you think, what is the point of it? I suppose it has been kicked and thrown around for so many millions of years that its spores have spread widely and it’s become an evolutionary success.
One fungus that does well in August and people struggle to cope with is oak bracket (though this specimen was on a veteran beech tree). This was an evening trip after passing it in the pouring rain on a group walk in late July. It’s one of the most photogenic shrooms and is full of macro possibilities! The above pic is taken with a wide angle lens.
Using the macro here brings out the beads of water as the fungus exhudes the excess water from its pores. Can you see the figure reflected in the droplets? I’ll be back to visit the beech tree this fungus grows on next year.
The closer the connection you develop with wildlife through observation, the more important the seasons become. Man-made climate change is messing with that but I still see the arrival of Russulas (brittlegills) as a key indicator of summer’s end and the first specks of autumn.
Walking 5 miles on the South Downs Way in early September I was delighted to find a patch of boletes growing under an old yew tree on chalk. I had my now deceased compact camera to hand and snatched this photo. This elfish mushroom is probably Scarletina bolete. It has orangey-red gills and absolutely stinks. One upturned specimen was beginning to smell like a decaying animal.
I managed to sneak in a visit to the New Forest in September, a place so good for fungi it’s illegal to forage it. I found this bracket mushroom growing on a pine tree on heathland. It looks like a certain political figure, but I mean that as no insult to this amazing natural phenomena (the fungus, not the human).
August and September is a good time for the members of the Boletus family, home to the much sought after and munched Boletus edulis (otherwise known as cep, penny bun, porcini). The boletes are a diverse group. I think the mushroom above is a suede bolete. It looks like a biscuit sitting atop a rhubarb stalk.
A strange find was this parasitic species called powdery piggyback fungus (brilliant name), growing on the gills of blackening brittlegill.
I thought these were horn of plenty at first, but they also just look like straight-up dog poo.
Towards the end of September I visited the Cairngorms and Perthshire in the Scottish Highlands. At Balmoral before a group hike I found what I think is Boletus edulis at the shore of Loch Muick. There are two sides to every shroom. The one with the sun, rain and loch behind is one of my fave pics of the year and was found, taken and left alone within the space of about 30 seconds. You can plan for all the amazing pics you want, but when it comes to mushroom portraiture (lol) you have to be ready at all times.
In some Perthshire woodland outside Pitlochry my friend and I found some jelly babies, a first for me.
Yellow staghorn was cropping up fairly commonly in September. This bunch was on a stump which gave the opportunity for my friend Eddie to help with the composition. Another favourite from 2018!
One of my new playgrounds in 2018 was Ebernoe Common, a National Nature Reserve managed by Sussex Wildlife Trust. I had two full days over the autumn to explore Ebernoe (responsibly!) with my DSLR and macro lense. The mushroom above was found after about 5 minutes of searching one area that is quite open and heathy. The summer drought meant that mushrooms were not as abundant as perhaps they would have been after a wetter season and the ground here was very dry. This is taken with a macro lens and is lit with a small LED side light, alongside a lovely break of warm autumn sun.
I find macro photography to be meditative. Looking at such a fine level of detail on what is usually a stationary object is very calming. One thing I have noticed is that when you look closely at a mushroom you often find other life. In the photo above I was trying to get a pic of what I think is bleeding bonnet and only when checking the photo on my camera spotted the springtail crossing its cap. Springtails are invertebrates that are found in soil and damp, shady parts of woodland. They are key to a woodland ecosystem as detritivores (they recycle stuff), and part of healthy woodland soil. By that I don’t mean soil good for ploughing or food growing but as part of the natural make-up of soil which includes fungi, bacteria and invertebrates.
Before the clocks went back in October I managed to visit The Mens in West Sussex (another special ancient woodland managed by Sussex Wildlife Trust) while the evening light was still there. For most woodland photography it’s vital to have a camera or lens that can deal with low light. The ISO needs to be able to go beyond 1600 without being too grainy I think. Luckily I have a camera that can do that. I also like to take photos at an aperture like f11 which gives more detail and a better depth of field than something like f2.8. Though wider apertures like f2.8 can give lovely isolated mushroom images. That’s photo jargon I know but it makes a huge difference when in woods.
One way to get around this is to use artificial lighting. Sometimes a phone torch is good enough. The translucence of many mushrooms means that lighting can create all kinds of possibilities. The bonnet mushrooms above where photographed in very low light with cloud cover above the woodland canopy. I used a little LED light to bring them out against the dark woodland background.
The detail my camera’s sensor combined with the macro lens can produce is amazing here – to the left of the frame you can see spores being released from the gills of the mushroom. Amazing! On the right-hand side you can see them dropping out of the gills, eventually carried away on the air flow.
I was really pleased with how this one came out, the moss ‘sporophytes’ add an extra element through their accidental lighting! You wonder where the idea for lampshades came from…
An October visit to Dartmoor gave the opportunity to explore the oak woods that make the south-west famous among those who care about Celtic rainforest. Dartmoor is known for its moorland but it also has extensive areas of ancient woodland. Some of this woodland is so boulder-strewn that there isn’t actually much in the way of substrate for fungi to spring from in the way it does in the Sussex Weald, for example.
No mushroom season is complete without a fly agaric. We found some real beauties under some birch trees in a small slither of more typical beech woodland.
Porcelain fungus is one of the most photogenic species due to the translucence of the gills and the slimey cap that catches the light so sweetly. It also fruits at a time when leaves are still on the trees, helping to produce the bokeh (light circles that blur in the background) where the light does get through. The most beautiful mushroom images are often taken from below in my opinion.
Compare the above photo taken on the same tree early in October, compared with the more wintry version above that.
The tree host here is a fallen beech that is my go-to for photos. You can see some of the diversity in this video:
A species I was interested to find was split gill fungus. It has a quite hairy exterior and grows like a bracket or polypore on dead wood. This one wasn’t easy to photograph and I’m not over the moon about the pic, but the bokeh in the background is nice. It was on the tree in the video below, another fallen beech:
Another part of the Sussex Weald that I visited is St. Leonards Forest in the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It’s a core part of the ancient wealden landscape in southern England. I walked about 8 miles in search of peak-season shrooms:
These oysters had a look of the sun rising over a green hill, much like the emoji! I think they’re olive oysterlings.
Yellow staghorn was going strong into the late-autumn. I used a side light to bring this one out in amongst the beech leaf litter.
Fallen beech trees are becoming a theme here. This jelly fungus was common, as can be seen in the previous videos as well.
December is a month of snow-white mushrooms for me. If it’s a cold month and there’s too much frost, the mushrooms will perish. December kept on message with recent years and was fairly mild all the way up until Christmas which meant some shrooms could fruit.
Bramble stems often have oysterlings attached to them. At first they look like little white nothings but when you look at the gills, they’re beautiful.
It’s also a good time to look for slime mould. Though not in the Kingdom of Fungi, slime mould is equal parts beautiful and disgusting. This is probably dog’s vomit fungus, Fuligo septica, famous for how it eats everything in its path:
I mentioned earlier those rogue springtails photobombing fungi pics.
During the Christmas holidays expectations for shrooms are low but I go for walks regardless obviously. Above is a fungus that is a bit of worry for gardeners, it’s silver-leaf fungus, a species that usually suggests a tree is dead or dying. It was harmless on this already dead tree. A much bulkier springtail was taking interest in it, perhaps.
My final fungal pic of 2018 was this lovely little bonnet, umbrella-like as it peeped out from the bark of a veteran oak tree.
Thanks for reading, wishing you many mushrooms in 2019!