So mush­room for fungi

Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Claire Hux­ley ex­plores the fas­ci­nat­ing world of fungi

Cheshire Life - - Wildlife -

UN­DER OUR FEET

We’re sur­rounded by thou­sands of species of wild fungi, in fact, in just 2.5 acres of lo­cal wood­land soil, you could find three and a half tonnes of fungi in one form or an­other. They’re found all around the world – on land, in the wa­ter, in the air and even in­side plants and an­i­mals. They vary widely in size from mi­cro­scopic to be­ing the largest or­gan­ism on earth. There is a honey fun­gus in the United States mea­sur­ing 2.4 miles wide and thought to be any­thing up to 8,650 years old.

You’d also be for­given for think­ing they are plants, in­stead they’re a whole group of their own. From yeast to mould to mush­rooms, they’re in­cred­i­bly im­por­tant to our lives, as well as the wildlife they sup­port.

WHAT DO FUNGI EAT?

Whereas plants make their own food through pho­to­syn­the­sis, fungi ‘eat’ their food like we do. How­ever, with­out hands or a mouth, they grow to­wards or in­side a food source, ab­sorb­ing it straight through their cells. Fungi can be sep­a­rated into three main groups based on what they eat: de­com­posers, which feed on dead stuff; par­a­sites, which feed on liv­ing plants or an­i­mals; and my­c­or­rhizal, which live in a har­mo­nious part­ner­ship with trees and plants.

De­com­posers are na­ture’s re­cy­clers, help­ing to break­down leaves, wood and dead mat­ter for the nu­tri­ents to be avail­able for other or­gan­isms. Some species con­tain a spe­cial en­zyme that is the only thing that can break down parts of dead­wood.

My­c­or­rhizals wrap them­selves around or into the roots of the plant, form­ing a part­ner­ship with them. The fun­gus takes sug­ars from the plant and in re­turn, the plant gets ac­cess to wa­ter and nu­tri­ents it oth­er­wise wouldn’t be able to reach. Any­one who tuned into Judi Dench’s ‘Pas­sion for Trees’ pro­gramme on the BBC last year will have seen her dis­cover that trees can talk to each other, and it’s the part­ner­ship with the fungi that pro­vides this mes­sag­ing ser­vice. In­stead of a net­work of in­ter­net or tele­phone ca­bles, plants use net­works of fun­gus ‘ca­bles’ to de­tect threats from neigh­bour­ing trees.

Par­a­sites, although of­ten weak­en­ing or even killing their hosts, work as part of a nat­u­ral bal­ance within the food web. For ex­am­ple a tree killed by fun­gus cre­ates dead­wood, a habi­tat for a num­ber of in­sects and nest­ing sites for birds. When fallen, the tree leaves a gap in the canopy mean­ing sun­light can reach the wood­land floor al­low­ing smaller plants and flow­ers to grow.

HOW DO THEY SPREAD?

When a fun­gus is ma­ture it pro­duces a fruit­ing body – this is the part we can see when we are out and about. The ones that we most com­monly as­so­ciate with, the tra­di­tional ‘mush­room’ of su­per­mar­ket shelves, house their spores in their gills on their un­der­side. These are then spread by wind and rain to start life in new lo­ca­tions. But oth­ers have in­ge­nious ways of spread­ing their spores. Earth­balls and puff balls ex­plode, send­ing their spores out into the at­mos­phere in an elab­o­rate fash­ion. Stinkhorns emit a foul smell that at­tracts flies who help to spread their spores on the in­sect’s feet.

EN­JOY­ING OUR FUNGI

Fungi are ev­ery­where and we make great use of them – from the ones we eat, to the ones we drink (af­ter all, yeast, used in the cre­ation of al­co­hol, is also a fun­gus.) Fungi can even be used to make dyes and medicines.

Mam­mals, such as squir­rels,

voles, and deer are also of­ten known to eat mush­rooms. Even slugs and in­sects are par­tial. Some fungi can even be­come a mini-ecosys­tem – sup­port­ing many species’ lar­vae at the same time.

As beau­ti­ful as many fungi are, don’t for­get that some are poi­sonous and even deadly. This makes it es­pe­cially im­por­tant to be care­ful when touch­ing and pick­ing them – even some of the ‘harm­less’ ones can cause stom­ach up­sets. We’d only rec­om­mend pick­ing to eat them if you are ac­com­pa­nied by an ex­pert and are 100% cer­tain of their iden­tity.

But our fungi friends don’t make it easy for us to iden­tify them en­tirely. The colour, size and shape of fungi may give us a clue as to what they are. But to truly sep­a­rate fungi types from their close rel­a­tives, we need to see what tex­ture they are, how they smell, if they change colour when they have been cut, whether they leak a milky sub­stance when bro­ken, and even what colour their spores are.

The dark­en­ing months of au­tumn are of­ten the best time to go fungi hunt­ing – so why not give it a try? When you next go walk­ing, take a look around and see how many types of fungi you can spot. From the typ­i­cal toad­stools and mush­rooms that you will be fa­mil­iar with, with their gilled un­der­side, through to fungi that look like small fin­gers or antlers stick­ing up from their host – and all sorts of shapes and sizes in be­tween – you get an im­pres­sion of how var­ied they can be. Some are like shelves on tree trunks; the ap­pro­pri­ately named bracket fun­gus. Oth­ers look like jelly or but­ter, and some cre­ate orange rusty or black sooty marks on their host.

WHERE TO GO

Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s na­ture re­serves are great places for na­ture spot­ting. Try East­wood Na­ture Re­serve in Staly­bridge, their na­ture re­serves around De­lamere or Danes Moss Na­ture Re­serve and Swet­ten­ham Val­ley Na­ture Re­serve in east Cheshire for fungi spot­ting.

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