As autumn throws a cool, damp blanket over the Heart of England Forest, so conditions become perfect for a fantastic array of fungi to begin fruiting. Visitors will begin to see a host of different species of toadstools and mushrooms springing up across the Forest floor or clinging to trees, but there’s so much more to fungi than meets the eye…
An underground marvel
The visible presence of fungi above ground belies the extraordinary work being done under the earth’s surface by these utterly indispensable components of woodland life. In an era when the human race is only just beginning to learn the importance of recycling, it is awe-inspiring to know that, since the dawn of time, fungi have played an integral part in nature’s recycling processes. Without fungi breaking down nature’s waste, such as dead wood and leaf matter, forests would simply drown under a suffocating mass of debris.
The vast majority of land plants form symbiotic, or mutually beneficial, mycorrhizal partnerships (the word comes from the Greek ‘mykes’ meaning fungus and ‘rhiza’ meaning root) with fungi. Below ground, fungi recycle all the nutrients from surface debris and redistribute them through a vast network of interconnecting threads or hyphae, in the soil, to the trees and plants above. Known as a mycelial network, it acts as a second root system for associated tree and plant life, contributing vital extra nourishment to ensure their health. These networks mean that fungi are actually more closely related to animals than plants – the Earth’s largest living organism is a honey mushroom that covers an astonishing 2,385 acres (almost four square miles) of the Malheur National Forest in Oregon. That’s one humungous fungus!
Rooted in time
As time goes by, so the mycelial network below ancient woodland continues to grow and the mutually beneficial relationship between trees, plants and fungi helps forests to flourish. It is essential, to help this partnership in its continuing development, that more trees are planted and that’s where the Heart of England Forest comes in. Acres of new trees alongside existing ancient woodland will allow the network to expand and thrive for centuries to come.
See for yourself
Fungi come in all shapes, sizes and colours and the sharp-eyed visitor to the Heart of England Forest this autumn should be able to spot plenty. Here are just a few of the species that might be on show and where to find them, but please don’t forage unless you are 100% certain that they are safe to eat.
Chanterelle: Funnel-shaped and smooth with a vivid orange or yellow gill-like underside and firm flesh, these are also known as girolle mushrooms and have the mild aroma of apricots. Easily confused with poisonous false chanterelle or jack o’-lanterns, chanterelle favours mossy areas of woodland.
Fly agaric: A mushroom that wouldn’t look out of place with a fairy atop it, the fly agaric is conspicuous for its toadstool shape and vibrant red or orange colour, punctuated by a mass of white wart-like spots. Fly agaric often forms a symbiotic relationship with birch trees.
Morel: Popular with chefs and foodies, this is easily identified by its honeycomb-like appearance and white stalk. It should not be confused with the highly poisonous false morel, usually found in sandy soil under pine trees. Find it on the ground in copses, woodland or along hedgerows.
Yellow brain: Sometimes known as witches’ butter, legend has it that if it appeared on the door or gate to a house a witch had cast a spell on it! This bright yellow fungus is common all year round across British woodland and is often found on the fallen branches of trees or dead wood. Scientists are investigating it as compounds it produces have shown anti-inflammatory and anti-allergenic properties.
If you happen upon these or any other interesting varieties of fungus while you are out and about in the Heart of England Forest, we’d love to see your photos and may be able to help you identify your discoveries. Share your pictures with us on Twitter @The_HOEF or via email on firstname.lastname@example.org.
Did you know?
- There are over 1.5 million documented species of fungi around the world and it is thought that up to 90% may still be undiscovered
- Medicines such as penicillin and statins are derived from fungi
- Without fungi we would have no yeast to help the fermentation process of beer or wine
- Scientists are investigating the possible use of fungi to break down plastic