Winter 2003

Fungal Foray

Pete Gahan, Coast and Countryside Service

Autumn and Winter are the peak time for fungi, suddenly they are everywhere announcing themselves with colours, smells and exotic shapes. Some are specialised for life in sandy places while others thrive in the more stable grassland and woodland communities. If you tune your senses correctly you will be rewarded with a host of beautiful natural forms that almost rival our rich summer slack flora.

Of course the objects we see on the ground or projecting out from a tree are just the fruits of the organism, these structures are ingeniously designed for the efficient distribution of reproductive spores.

The main body of the fungus lies beneath the ground or within the tree, a web like mass of tiny threads collectively called Mycelium. This Mycelium cannot produce its own energy so has to find something to act as a host a buried rabbit dropping, grass or tree roots. This connection may not always be a simple matter of digestion as some tap into tree roots in a give and take relationship.

The mild and muggy weather in Autumn triggers the mycelium into producing masses of these fruits. Each has the potential of releasing millions of microscopic spores to drift on the wind until landing in a favourable situation where it will germinate to produce another mycelium.

These flushes of fruit bodies may only last for a matter of weeks though and will surely be brought to a close by the first ground frosts of winter.

Fungi are amongst the most numerous and widespread organisms in the world, the British mycoflora alone is estimated in the thousands. I have selected some of the more unusual but noticeable ones which occur throughout the differing habitats encountered on a typical dune wander.

Dune Stinkhorn (Phallus hadriani)

Dune Stinkhorn
If while walking on the landward edge of the yellow dunes you suddenly become aware of a powerful odour, Stop, you are in the vicinity of a stinkhorn, closer investigation of the marram tussocks at your feet will reveal this comical looking fungi. The smell emanates from the greeny brown glutinous mass covering the hood like structure at the tip. This is a soup of spores, the fungi equivalent of a flowers pollen and just as the colour of a flowers petals attract insects to aid in pollination a smell invites flies to trample knee high in a sticky goo in the hope that they will deposit some at their next port of call.

Earth Star (Geastrum triplex)

Earth Star
In amongst the more stable dunes away from the beach. Search amongst Creeping willow leaf litter and you may come across the early stages of this fungi looking like a small brown marble emerging from the moss. Within twenty four hours this outer skin will split open and fold back on itself revealing a creamy coloured egg with a small hole in the centre. Should a raindrop or your finger touch this a small puff of brown spores will escape.

Plums and Custard (Tricholomopsis rutilans)

Plums and Custard
Within the pine woods look out for fallen trees or old stumps and you will at some point find this large gill fungi growing in small groups usually around the stump base. The streaked purple cap and stem with yellow gills give this pine decomposer its name. Unlike Earthstars or Stinkhorns gill fungi relies on gravity to assist spore dispersal. The gills fan out in a circle around the underside of the cap. When mature the spores are dropped between the gills to be whisked away by ground air currents.

Blackening Wax Cap (Hygrocybe nigrescens)

Blackening Wax Cap
When walking in the open near dune slacks look in grassy areas where the turf is short or along path edges. This shiny scarlet or sometimes orange conical capped gill fungi is pretty easy to spot. It is actually poisonous and as if to warn us turns an unwelcoming black if touched.

If this article has enthused you enough to venture out fungi hunting here are a few items of equipment that you may find useful in the field.

  • Field guides. There are lots available although the quality of illustrations and species descriptions can vary so take two for comparison.
  • A hand lens (x 10) or magnifying glass will help with small detail.
  • A note pad and pencil are useful for recording descriptive features, surrounding habitat or host organism.
  • Camera and small tripod, Fungi is very photogenic.
  • A small mat makes kneeling much more comfortable.

    Please remember the nature reserves and the wildlife within them are managed for the enjoyment of everyone picking fungi, as with wildflowers, will only spoil that enjoyment for others. Be careful many fungi are poisonous and some even deadly, do not eat them and wash hands if you have handled any fungi.