Fungi ๐Ÿ„: are there *really* mushrooms on Mars?

It’s been such a dry spring that I’m starting to wonder if there are any on this planet! They’re probably not on Mars but it’s a nice idea. Here’s more info on that story.

While I have your attention, allow me to explain some changes to the way this blog works. I am moving from the fixed days of #FungiFriday or Macro Monday. If you’re a regular reader you may have noticed that already. Now I’m making a monthly podcast, I need more flexibility with posting, and I actually sometimes have more to post about on both macro and fungi than just once a week. Also deadlines of Thursday and Sunday are not ideal!

Back to life. After a barren period (no morels for me), I did manage to find a couple of species on a long walk the other day, hiding away in the shade of a country lane. Get ready for phone pics.

This is turkeytail, one of the most common fungi you can find, distributed across the world. It is sometimes used to make tea and extracts are used for their anti-cancer properties.

Dehydrated jelly ear, sometimes known as ‘wood ear’

In Sussex we have recently had rain after a very dry April indeed. If this is climate crisis related, it means that the British tradition of April showers could be confined to the past. Once again, wildlife can point to wider issues in the environment which we are often oblivious to.

In that not-quite-fungi-but-probably-animal category are the slime moulds, of which I found one on the same walk.

This is a great advert for fungi and slime mould because it’s so blatant. It’s a species you see cropping up on social media time and again, with many people intrigued by its presence, often on deadwood. It’s false puffball, a slime mould. Looking at iNaturalist, April seems to be its peak month.

In other news, I’m giving a fungi talk online on Tuesday 18th May at 19:00 (London, UK time) for Bell House, a charity that supports people with dyslexia. There is a suggested donation of ยฃ5 towards their work. You can see the full details and how to book here.

Thanks for reading.

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#FungiFriday: a light in the dark

Fungi Friday 19th February 2021

In Sussex we’ve been treated to snow and ice, followed by a sudden jump in temperatures to something spring-like. For mushrooms, it must be a confusing time. It definitely is for this manshroom.

A frozen pond in the Sussex Weald

Today’s post is brought to you by phone pics. I’ve been a bit confused by messaging around lockdown laws in the UK, where it’s unclear if you can do photography at all. It’s just not that important, though. People are suffering beyond my comprehension and in England our National Health Service is under incredible pressure. I’m lucky and I do not take for granted the privilege I have in being able to access the countryside within a few miles of walking.

Yellow brain fungus

For the benefit of international readers, in England we’re supposed to only do walks from home or those involving a short journey. I’ve not been to my usual local woods in a while, but I can get to the edges of them or at least some mature, tree-lined avenues within a couple of miles whilst keeping away from other people. The standout fungus during walks this winter has been yellow brain, Tremella mesenterica. It is such a beautiful fungus and so unusual to see something so bright in the dark scenes of an English winter.

There’s a reason so few soil-based mushrooms are found in winter – the ground freezes and most fungal hyphae are unable to move through the frozen substrate. Fungi that grow from dead wood or other material can continue to do their thing. This rather pooed-upon bracket fungus is known in the UK as lacquered bracket. On social media you see lots of American accounts raving about reishis. There is even a website dedicated to the species under that name.

I wrote a little bit about turkey tail last week, and this week’s post is late because I entertained the idea of a turkey tail post in itself but eventually didn’t have the time. I think this is turkey tail. It’s quite a variable species so if you don’t know the basic features, can be confused with others. I’m it that camp.

Jelly ear

Jelly ear has to be one of the species people notice first. It was my first ever #FungiFriday post! It looks like a body part, is tactile, non-toxic and grows on a common European tree – elder (Sambucus nigra). It’s also very common in urban woodlands and green spaces, which means it reaches a wider audience.

Quite similar to turkey tail is the Stereum family. This is probably hairy curtain crust (yep) and is very common in these months when rainfall is high and temperatures are hovering between 5-15 degrees Celsius.

On a longer local walk I found this veteran beech tree. It had a massive bracket fungus growing at its waist. This fungus had become very woody in texture, which shows how they can survive cold weather. I’d like to get back to see it when it starts to build up its next layer. You can read more about bracket fungi here.

Thanks for reading.

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Postcard from the Dales

Hi everyone, No usual blogs from me this week as I’m away in the Yorkshire Dales. It’s been very hot here which makes walking more difficult (for me). The evening light has been absolutely sensational, though. Walked the Muker-Keld loop incorporating the Pennine Way in part. It’s such an incredibly rich landscape of natural and… Continue reading Postcard from the Dales

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#FungiFriday: can mushrooms save the world?

Fungi Friday 12th February 2021

For a long time I’ve been intending to watch Fantastic Fungi, a feature-length film about, you guessed it, fungi. You can watch the film for a fee via the Fantastic Fungi website.

I thought the film was inspirational. In dark times it gave a sense of the deep resilience of fungi and their role in the world. The time-lapse footage is some of the best you will see, from my experience. There is also stunning CGI visualising the interconnectedness of fungal hyphae and the roots of trees and plants. The image of a perished mouse decaying, being recycled by insects and fungi, and then sprouting with plants, will stay in my memory.

A clip from Fantastic Fungi

Perhaps that’s one of the things about fungi that is so hopeful – it can give a vision for life beyond dying. Death is not an end.

One surprise with the film was the extensive coverage of Paul Stamets, one of America’s leading mycologists. As one person commented to me on Twitter, he was so prevalent in the film it could really have been named after him! He is an incredibly engaging speaker and has achieved fame with his YouTube talks.

Paul Stamets, American mycologist (mushroom researcher), holding an Agarikon mushroom (Laricifomes officinalis) Wikimedia Commons

Stamets makes a great point about the need to protect old growth woodlands, especially those where he lives in North America. The argument (beyond many, many others) is that they are reservoirs of undiscovered medicines and scientific advancements. There are species going extinct which we have not yet even identified. There are plants and fungi which could change the world, or indeed save it, which are being destroyed with their habitats. Much of this is for logging and clearing land for agriculture.

Turkey tail, Trametes versicolor

The story of how Stamets’ mother survived cancer after using extract from turkey tail (Trametes versicolor) is amazing. It’s unclear how fundamental to her survival turkey tail was. You can read more about medical research regarding turkey tail here.

Thanks for reading and make sure to check out the film!

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#FungiFriday: rooting around in the woods

Fungi Friday 25th September 2020

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!

Thanks for reading.

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#FungiFriday: fungi giveth and they taketh away

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Fungi Friday 21st February 2020

The Weald holds so many future Fungi Fridays. It’s an ancient wooded landscape that stretches across Sussex, parts of Surrey and into Kent. It covers the most wooded part of the UK in East Sussex. Once it will have connected with the New Forest, forming much of England’s post-glacial ‘wildwood’. I am very privileged to live within rambling distance of the Weald. I write about walks in it once a month, check that out if you will.

I managed to sneak ninety minutes in locally last week and found plenty of interesting things. As well as the ‘dark side’ of fungi, a reminder that a fungus giveth, and it taketh away.

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We have had two storms in two weeks in Sussex and the winter streams are tickling through the woodland understory. Above, a tree was resting in a winterborne. This means a stream that only flows in winter when rainfall is higher. In Ireland, lakes (or loughs) that appear in winter are known as ‘turloughs’. Got plenty of those right now in Brexit-land.

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The log was covered in some nice looking turkeytail, a very common polypore that is said have anti-carcinogenic properties. It was a nice way to start.

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Then I happened upon these absolute corkers growing on a dead birch tree. These are blushing bracket in their mature stage. This area of the woodland is very wet, with mosses like sphagnum attempting to recolonise more places. It is set in amongst mature beech trees at the edge of heath-ier habitats, largely consumed by pines that were planted, rank and file, by the Forestry Commission in the 20th Century. It’s very wet and many birches are succumbing there. This is natural.

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This is a standalone dead birch tree with birch polypore, also known as razorstrop fungus. It’s a tough bracket fungus that people probably once used to sharpen their razors. It naturally controls birch trees and breaks them down for other organisms to devour, and therefore new soils to be created.

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Here’s a quick macro of one of the mosses from the work of the razorstrop, looking much like a cedar or a fern.

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I found some split gills looking rather shaggy, in a good way. If you look at the yellow smatterings around, I think that’s a slime mould making its way across the surface of the bark.

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Rewind to May in this area, when the first leaves were appearing on the trees and the ground was far drier. This is one of my favourite trees to photograph in this woodland because of the orange algae and the beautiful buttresses at the tree’s base.

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Here it is in December, the ground much more wet, the leaves all gone. Can you see the bracket fungus at its base? It has been damaged, probably by a visitor testing its strength.

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And here it was last week. Evidently the tree has been destabilised by the decay which has been accelerated by the fungus. This has softened the heartwood which leaves the tree vulnerable to storm damage.

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But this veteran beech tree still lives, it has only lost one of its three trunks. I hope it can remain where it is and continue down its veteran path into the realm of the ancients.

It’s just another reminder that fungi has its own way in the world and there is no sentimentality involved. It’s there to break down organic matter. Trees were not a safety concern until we started walking underneath them everyday.

Some species share what they can find, others take, take, take. It’s in their nature. But in the end fungi are contributing to vital processes of organic recycling and renewal. Without the ecological role of fungi our species would not exist writing blogs, taking photos, hurling abuse at passers by, or walking under veteran trees in the woods.

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