Friday, 30 August 2013

Fascinating fungi

Tony Leech, NWT Trustee and County Fungus Recorder

Bulbous Bonnet Mycena stylobates growing on a pine twig shows
that small can be beautiful. Photo: Tony Leech
Forays are oversubscribed; TV chefs extol their virtues and field guides (some of them good) proliferate. In the past, fungi have either been feared or ignored, but at last they have come out of the closet and as you get to know them they reveal themselves as amazingly beautiful and wonderfully interesting. The ephemeral nature of most, and their apparently magical appearance in unexpected places, only adds to the fascination. But the ‘magic’ arises simply because we cannot see the bulk of the fungus which is a mass of thread-like hyphae, each much thinner than a human hair, branching through the humus, wood or dung etc. on which the fungus is feeding. The part of the fungus we do see is just the ‘fruiting body’, which, like the fruit on a tree, produces and releases the agents of dispersal.
Dune Waxcap Hygrocybe conicoides is one of about 30 fleshy
fungi found only on sand dunes. Photo: Tony Leech
With over 10,000 species recorded in Britain, the diversity of form and colour surprises the beginner and delights the more experienced mycologist. As well as toadstools, there are brackets, cups, stars, balls, spindles, crusts, rusts and smuts (even I have to admit that not all fungi are beautiful!). Nearly 3500 species have been found in Norfolk which has a long history of fungus-recording; by 1884, Charles Plowright had listed 1500 species. From the early 1930s until the mid-1980s, Ted Ellis added many more, especially microfungi growing on plants, and in 1976, Reg and Lil Evans returned to the county and spent the next 25 years assiduously recording fungal distributions. Since 2001, members of the Norfolk Fungus Study Group have carried on the work, and over 250 species have been added to the County list in the past ten years.
Devil’s Claw Clathrus archeri, an Australasian fungus that has become
naturalised in a few places in Britain. Photo: Tony Leech
For many, the first step in getting to know the fungal world is an autumn foray. Fungus forays are fun!  Adults and children alike enjoy them but, in my opinion, a successful foray is one where the expectations of participants have been transformed from harvesting a basketful of good edibles (rarely possible in this country) to the excitement of finding different kinds – as many as 100 species on a good autumn day. 

To identify a fungus it is almost always necessary to pick it. Should this concern us? Not really, for we are only picking the ‘fruit’ and it will probably already have released literally millions of spores. But whilst collecting a few fruiting bodies for identification or the pot is may not be considered a conservation issue, collecting large numbers for commercial purposes probably is.

Scarlet Elfcup Sarcoscypha austriaca, a cup fungus that adds a
splash of colour to a wet wood in early spring. Photo: Tony Leech

Since colour and form are the most obvious features you will first be drawn to matching your specimen with a picture in the field guide. To avoid frustration it is essential that your field guide illustrates a large number of species; both Mushrooms* by Roger Phillips and the Collin’s Guide* by Paul Sterry and Barry Hughes manage this. Because fungi can be variable in form, and sometimes in colour, the big difficulty is knowing whether your specimen falls within the range of variation for a particular species and the virtue of Phillip’s book is that for most species he illustrates a range of specimens, showing undersides and stem details. The photographs in Sterry’s book, however, are of specimens in natural surroundings and their stunningly high standard is more likely to trigger recognition.  You might need both!

Weather Earthstar Geastrum corollinum. One of the rarer of the earthstars, the outer
skin of which splits and curves back to elevate the spore-sac. Photo: Dave Leech
The superficial appearance of your fungus may take you to the right part of the book but now you must look for clues and check them against the descriptions. Does it have gills?  What colour are they and how far apart? There are as many clues on the stem (if it has one): colour and texture; presence of a ring and shape of the base (make sure you pick the whole fungus).  Add to all these the habitat, smell and whether the fungus is clustered or growing singly and you should be getting somewhere. But from here on things can get trickier. Critical identification generally requires the use of a microscope and access to specialist literature. However, microscopes are no more expensive than the telescopes which many birders possess.
Cobalt Crust Terana caerulea. A rare but distinctive encrusting fungus on wood
which rapidly loses its intense colour. Photo: Jeremy Bagnall-Oakeley
Fungi have the reputation of being difficult to identify; they can be, but so can almost any group of organisms. Don’t try to identify everything you find; select a few specimens in good condition and look at them carefully. Don’t be daunted; count your successes not your failures and, slowly at first, then faster, your list will grow.

*Phillips, R. Mushrooms. 2006, Macmillan. ISBN 978-0-330-44237-0
Sterry, P. & Hughes, B. Collins Complete Guide to Mushrooms and Toadstools. 2009, Collins. ISBN 978-0-00-723224-6

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