Saturday, 4 October 2014

October species of the month: fungi

Ed Parnell, Norfolk Wildlife Trust 

One of the great pleasures of autumn is to walk through the woods, breathing in the distinctive, slightly sweet odour of rotten wood and fallen leaves. On dead trees, around the base of stumps, and in grassy clearings, fungi will also be much in evidence but knowing which species you’re looking at is not always easy. That’s no surprise when you consider that over 10,000 fungi species have been recorded in Britain – with around 3,500 of those found in Norfolk.

Perhaps the best way to get an introduction to this mycological world is to join a fungus foray. A number of such walks are held around the county each autumn, run by Norfolk Wildlife Trust local groups, the National Trust or the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists' Society. It’s essential to know what you’re doing where fungi are concerned, particularly if you are picking mushrooms to eat, as there are a number of poisonous species, some of which are potentially deadly. If in any doubt whatsoever stick to the mushrooms in your local supermarket!

Death Cap, photo by Tony Leech
The most common of the deadly species in the UK is the deathcap. Although this yellowish species looks rather innocuous and undistinguished its effects are anything but, with fatal kidney and liver failure resulting a couple of days after ingestion. Similar symptoms are produced by the equally emotively named destroying angel. Another to avoid is the panthercap, which at least is easier to recognise – it has a rather lethal look about it with cream spots splattered across its brown cap.

Perhaps the most distinctive poisonous species to watch out for is the fly agaric. With its bright scarlet cap, covered with white, wart-like specks, this is the archetypal fairytale toadstool. In addition to causing convulsions and a catatonic sleep it’s also strongly hallucinogenic – a property utilised by shamans of the Sami people of Lapland, as well as their reindeer, which seem to experience a similar mind-altered state when consuming these magical mushrooms. Indeed, many reindeer apparently become rather partial to the sensation, actively seeking out the toadstools when they get the chance. In Norfolk, you won’t see any reindeers behaving badly, but a good place to search for fly agarics is NWT Roydon Common, near King’s Lynn, as the site’s mixture of heathland and birch woods is ideal for this red and white gem. 

Fly agaric, photo by Peter Dent

Other interesting species found in Norfolk include: giant puffballs, which can grow up to 80cm across; King Alfred’s Cakes (ironically inedible) – small, hard rounded balls which grow on dead trees and can be seen at NWT Lower Wood, Ashwellthorpe; Chicken of the woods which, as its name suggests, tastes (apparently!) like chicken; the stinkhorn, which is often detected by its unpleasant, putrid odour, and which also has a rudely distinctive appearance – NWT Foxley Wood, just off the A1067 Norwich–Fakenham road is a good place to look for this species, as well as being generally good for all autumn fungi.

For details of Norfolk Wildlife Trust events see on

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