So mushroom for fungi
Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s Claire Huxley explores the fascinating world of fungi
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.