Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Bluffers Guide to Fungi - Part 1

Have you ever had that massively embarrassing moment when someone asks you "what is your favourite basidiomycete?" and you answer with orange peel fungus - only to be laughed right out of the building because you've just named a ascomycete?


Here is my bluffers guide to fungi; how to survive a conversation with a mycologist (fungi expert) and be able to leave the room with your dignity intact.  I have tried to avoid all scientific names and technical references as these can always be looked up afterwards.

Here we go...

What is the difference between fungi, mushrooms and toadstools?

Not a lot.

Mushrooms and toadstools are both nick-names for fungi which are the classic cap-on-a-stem shape.  Mushrooms were the edible ones and toadstools the poisonous ones.

What is a mushroom?

What you see popping up through the ground this time of year is the fruit of the fungi; this is how it disperses its spores (seeds). Think of fungi as a massive root system, just like that of a tree except much finer. These roots can spread huge long distances underground and live for over a thousand years, with the only tell-tale that fungi are below ground is that of the fruiting bodies.

Why are they important?

Waste.  The earth would be a huge pile of waste if it wasn't for these little guys that break it all down into microscopic nutrients which go back into the soil and are used again by plants and trees.  Fungi will digest leaf litter, dead wood, dead bodies and dung, thank goodness. To put that into figures; a woodland the size of a football pitch will produce over 5 tonnes of waste in the form of leaves and fallen wood every year which will all be consumed by enough fungi to fill a convoy of dumper trucks.
Some however are parasites, these like to feed off living things like trees and also grubs that are below the ground.

Why are toadstools poisonous?

Good question.  According to Peter Marren (2012) on why they are poisonous: "There is no imaginable advantage to the mushroom being so," "its ability to poison human beings is accidental".

There are so many different types, how do I identify them?

Just like with plants - where different plants will grow in different places, the same can be said with fungi.  Each different place, or habitat as it's called, will vary in the soil type, the tree species, the type of grass, and what is around to feed off.
For example, some fungi love conifer woods, some prefer woods with native trees in, some love old grasslands, some like specific trees such as beech, some might feed off other fungi and some will be found in towns, growing up out of the pavement!  So the first thing to do is work out what habitat the fungus is in, and second what it is feeding off.

Tip: Having more than one fungi ID book is a good idea, as one book might not have the right picture for you. Fungi look different from day to day and it all depends on when the photos were taken.

Some types of big fungi (macrofungi):

I'm not following the usual classification of fungi here, for the real ways to pigeon-hole them please refer to a good book.  This is merely a beginners guide.

The Wood Rotters.
Some digest dead wood, some digest living wood, and some like both! (eg honey fungus)
Many zoned polypore. A common fungi found on deadwood. (Photo Vanda Caudrey)
Beefsteak fungus.  Found on old oak trees.
The Tree Partners
These are fungi which are attached to the roots of trees. The fungi give the tree nutrients from the soil and the tree with its leaves can provide the fungi with something it cannot make itself - carbohydrates.  These fungi are called mycorrhizal fungi and they all have their preferred type of tree to link up with. Identify the tree and it'll give you a good clue what type of fungi you're looking at.
The birch bolette, a mycorrizal fungi found near, you guessed it, birch.
This is a relative of the famous Fly Agaric, part of the amanita family and is found in mixed woods, meaning woods with both conifers and broadleaved trees.
The Grasslanders
These include the colourful little gems seen growing in ancient grassland which doesn't get fertilised or ploughed and has fairly short grass, usually kept short by sheep.  These are called wax caps.
Other whitish coloured fungi that can be seen growing in grass often produce big circles called fairy-rings, where the mushrooms mark the extent of the underground root system.
White spindles seen here in grass that is carefully looked after.
Wax cap fungi like these are found in traditionally managed grassland. The name wax cap comes from the texture of the top and stem of these often brightly coloured beauties. (photo John Malley)

The Out-of-this-world Types
There are lots of fungi that don't follow the usual mushroom shape and must be in competition with each other to look like something landed on earth from space.
The yellow brain fungus, here on an ash tree is actually feeding off another fungus found on its bark.
Dead-mans fingers, feeding off an old beech stump.
Coral fungus, here in a wood of beech and oak trees.
The Insect Eaters
These can be tiny and easy to miss when walking through grass or woodland.  However some are bright orange which helps a lot.
Scarlet Catapillar Club in grassland (photo David Benham)

So there you have part 1 of this light-hearted look at something that I find interesting at this time of year. If you fancy finding out more there are some great books out there including ones by Roger Phillips and Peter Marren. Look out for more photos that will be added to this blog over the next few weeks.

Ben Knipe
Woodland Ranger

1 comment :