The fabulous world of fungi
PUBLISHED: 09:59 20 October 2008 | UPDATED: 15:32 20 February 2013
Local Wildlife Trust expert, Gavin Hageman, takes a look at the amazing range of fungi that pops ups through the autumn leaf litter...
For most of the year, fungi cannot be seen. Instead, their tiny filaments, called 'hyphae', are working busily in the leaf litter digesting vegetation. Most digest dead leaves and wood, but some attack living trees and others form mutually beneficial relationships with plant roots. These hyphae are at work all year and play a vital part in the woodland by converting matter such as fallen leaves into soil.
But change is afoot... Autumn is the season when many species of fungi, once secretly working below ground, will show themselves by 'fruiting' in the form of mushrooms or toadstools. The woodlands of Berkshire and the Chilterns are a great place to search for them in the cool air with the crisp fallen leaves crunching underfoot.
From handsome to horrendous
The names 'mushroom' or 'toadstool' are often used to describe fungi but the fungus family actually includes thousands of species including moulds, mildews and lichens. The fungi we spot in our woodlands and meadows come in all shapes, sizes and colours, from the handsome and colourful through to the weird and wacky. An additional quirk of fungi is that whilst some are edible and delicious to eat, others are deadly.
The beech woodlands at BBOWT's Warburg Nature Reserve are a great place to spot the delicate amethyst deceiver. This fungi is unique in that its cap and stem are bright purple - it seems an unlikely candidate to be edible, but it is! Also found among the beech leaves is the equally aptly named magpie inkcap, with its black and white speckled top. This fungus is very easy to spot but is poisonous and only lasts a few days.
Top of the list of handsome specimens must be the fly agaric. This famous red and white toadstool is rich with myth and legend. So named because of its use as a fly killer when crumbled in milk, it is toxic and is known to have been used 'recreationally' by Laplanders, as well as used to sedate their reindeer prior to herding.
This species loves the free draining soils of BBOWT's Bowdown Woods and can sometimes be seen in large numbers. This site is one of the best woodlands in Berkshire to see fungi and is a beautiful place for an autumn walk.
Weird and wonderful
The giant puffball is a prized edible species found generally earlier in the year on grassland, but there are several smaller and more common puffballs commonly found in woodlands such as Warburg and Bowdown Woods. Unlike most fungi, which release spores from underneath the cap, these rubbery spheres release spores into the air via a tiny hole in their top either when they are ready to pop naturally or when given a helping hand and gently squeezed.
Of the weird-looking fungi, the collared earthstar is one of the most unusual. It is basically a puffball which splits open to form a star shape on the ground. It can be spotted in the woodlands of Warburg.
The bearded tooth fungus is another weird-looking species, with its sharp, downward-pointing 'teeth' providing its name. Also known as 'lion's mane' and 'tree hedgehog', it is an endangered species that has only been seen a handful of times in the UK in the last 45 years. It grows mainly on beech but also on oak, birch, ash and alder. In fact, it is so rare that a national action plan identifies a need to look after suitable, ancient trees as a key to its conservation. It can be found in the Chilterns and has been previously spotted at the entrance of BBOWT's own Warren Bank Nature Reserve near Wallingford.
Delicious or deadly?
Although there are several fungi that are edible, there are also many that are very poisonous - and often the two look very similar! So unless you're with an expert, it's best to just enjoy the mushrooms where they stand.
One of the most common edible fungi is the shaggy inkcap which can be seen in quite large numbers growing in rough grasslands, gardens and parks, and is easily recognised by its rough, shaggy cap. Other commonly found, edible species include the violet-tinted wood blewit and the hedgehog fungus with its stalactite-like spines instead of gills under the cap.
The death cap, panther cap and destroying angel are the fungi that put most people off picking mushrooms to eat. They are deadly poisonous and the death cap, for example, can cause failure of major organs followed by death. If you are interested in harvesting some fungi for your cooking, why not come along to one of BBOWT's fungi forays where an expert can show you the best species to pick and those to avoid? Details can be found at www.bbowt.org.uk.
Conservation of fungi
The picking of fungi to eat is not encouraged on BBOWT nature reserves but is allowed on supervised forays led by an expert. BBOWT manages woodlands to promote wildlife diversity and fungi specifically are encouraged by allowing both standing and fallen deadwood to remain in situ. Even unhealthy trees are left where they pose no danger, because cavities of rotten wood are habitats not only for fungi but also for bats and birds such as woodpeckers.
Other places to visit
• Burnham Beeches (City of London Corporation), near Slough
• Hodgemoor Woods (Forestry Commission), near Tring
• Nature Discovery Centre (West Berkshire Council), near Newbury
To find out more about BBOWT nature reserves, volunteering and events please visit www.bbowt.org.uk or call 01865 775476. Members of the Trust receive our events diary, a high quality magazine, and a detailed and beautiful book about the Trust's 88 nature reserves.