Guest blog written by Peter Norton, fungi enthusiast.

You somehow feel different when walking in woodland, your pace slows, and you can lose yourself in the sights and sounds, the smell of the damp soil, birds chattering, or the solitary rasp of the lone corvid, how great life can feel in such an emotional and engaging way.

It’s at times like this you can stumble across a small grouping of pale-yellow mushrooms that are clustered around the base of a moss-covered stump.

Mushrooms

Or glimpse a white speckled red cap that immediately brings back memories of childhood when fairies were supposed to sit on top and guide you into the woods to meet friends your mum would never approve of. Those were the days!

Mushrooms

Mushrooms and toadstools have been the source of superstition myth, and folklore across the centuries with their overnight appearance in large rings that could only have been created by magical creatures of the underworld. Some glow in the pitch darkness of the gaunt wood as if lighting the way into places no human would ever want to tread. Human diseases and even death hovered above these ungodly forms as if they were the work of evil, witches, elves, or even the devil himself. Some still view these with great suspicion, and we often hear, “don’t touch those”, but times are changing, and more are becoming interested in these strange unworldly growths.

Even today we generally classify them as mushrooms or toadstools’, however, there’s no real scientifically accepted difference between a mushroom and a toadstool, and the terms can sometimes be used interchangeably to refer to the same types of fungus. However, in common-non-scientific usage, the term “toadstool” is more often given to those fungi that are poisonous or otherwise inedible. While “mushroom” infers an edible fungus.

The typical fungus is normally hidden from our sight beneath the ground or in the wood of a tree or branch and will consist of a mass of branched filaments called hyphae that grow and branch repeatedly into a complicated, radially expanding network called the mycelium and it’s from this hidden network that the fruiting body we know as a mushroom is produced and becomes the only part we see above the ground.

In scientific terms, the fruiting body is known as a sporocarp but even this is split again but that’s another story for another time. Fungi are responsible for most of the recycling which returns dead material to the soil in a form in which it can be reused. Without fungi, these recycling activities would be seriously reduced. We would effectively be lost under piles many metres thick, of dead plant and animal remains.

Mushrooms come in many shapes and sizes, but their sole purpose is to produce spores which then produce the next generations. Spore dispersal (sporulation) in the fungal kingdom is quite fascinating and in some cases unique to everything else on the planet! Mushrooms are split into two major groups. Basidiomycetes are the spore droppers and Ascomycetes are the spore shooters. The methods used by these groups depend on wind action, dispersal by rain, and even insects carrying the spores away to name just a few.

Take a walk around your local wildlife woodland and look for mushrooms to photograph, which incidentally can be found most days of the year and not just relegated to the Autumn period, although that is perceived as the peak period for growth. The Winter period may seem a bit scarce for interesting fungi, but they are there, and you may have to look under fallen trees and or branches they possibly may differ in form and look more like smears of white as against a mushroom shape that has a stem, cap, and gills.

Mushrooms

When you’ve found a mushroom and don’t know what it is, certain observations will help you back at home or, if you belong to a fungi group aid identification. It might look like an awe-inspiring amount of information, but you will realise the importance as you progress.

Before you take photos of the mushroom, observe if it’s on its own or in a grouping and if the group is scattered or close together. You can then base your photographic record around this, so all aspects are visually recorded, and then describe and record as suggested below: Describe where you found it – conifer plantation, deciduous woodland, open grassland, etc – include a photo if possible

Describe the substrate – was it growing on grass, soil, woodchip, live tree, fallen branch etc. include a photo if poss.

Describe what trees (if any) were nearby – give the species if possible, beech, oak, willow, birch etc. and if conifer then Spruce, Pine or Douglas if at all possible.

Describe the smell of the mushroom – floral, spicy, rank, fishy, if any

Describe the texture of the mushroom – does it feel slimy, dry, hairy, spiky, etc.

Note: Some books describe taste as an identifier, I would not recommend this process for beginners if you’re not a beginner then you probably know what is required.

Most importantly, post several in-focus photos of the mushroom if possible, showing preferably the Top, Side, underneath (gills/pores/spines, etc), complete stem, volva/sac if relevant, and cross-section from top to bottom. You will need to pick one to do this, especially the cross-section buts that’s Ok for identification purposes except if it’s on a Red List for conservation-but hey that’s for another day.

I’ll finish my verbal wanderings with a recent observation.

It was raining, yes raining the other day and I was in woodland on the rolling chalk hills of my home county of Wiltshire, watching the distribution of spores from mature puffballs, (sporulation) where clouds of spores, smoke-like, drifted along on invisible eddies.

Lycoperdon is a genus of puffball mushrooms that has a widespread distribution and contains about 50 species. The scientific name when broken down also has a significant meaning; ‘Lyco’ – means wolf and ‘perdon’ refers to flatulence. Therefore, Lycoperdon translates as ‘wolf flatulence’, perhaps about the way these puffballs puff their spores out through a central hole (ostiole) but ‘hats off to the person who first approached a wolf to gather samples.

Puffballs

Normally the action of rain falling on the soft and pliable peridium (outer skin) causes a downward force that pushes/ejects the spores into the air, hence the puff in puffball. But the rain had stopped and there was no wind, but I could see a smoky haze close to the puffballs and I think it was water droplets from the over-arching tree canopy that was activating the sporulation.

“What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare” – Leisure - W. H. Davies

Seen a mushroom on your woodland walks? Let us know what you find!

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