Woodland fungi foray
Seek out our most spectacular fungi species on an autumn woodland treasure hunt. Pete Dommett and his family visited their very own forest (well, sort of)
“Come and look at this one!” My son, Will, is standing by a silver birch stump, where strange pale blobs are bursting out of the bark.
“It’s a marshmallow tree!” he jokes. We’ve joined a fungi foray at Dommett Wood Nature Reserve in the heart of Somerset’s Blackdown Hills. We share our name with this woodland but sadly there’s no family connection. But with the golden light of an autumn afternoon filtering through the still-green tree canopy, it has a welcoming, homely feel.
“This is a typical beech wood and fungi love beeches,” says our guide, Michael Jordan of the Fungus Conservation Trust (find guided fungi forays on its website, www.abfg.org).
It’s not long before Will and his brother Tom uncover more surprises hidden in the leaves and beechmast. The grubby yellow globes look like long-lost dogs’ tennis balls, but Michael is visibly excited by the boys’ discovery – they’re earthballs. Breaking one apart to reveal a centre the colour and consistency of caviar, he offers us a sniff: there’s a sharp tang of burning rubber.
“Use all your senses,” Michael encourages. “Look closely, touch, smell.” And taste? “I always give the same answer to the question ‘can you eat it?’” he explains. “And that’s ‘Yes, but maybe only once’.” It raises a laugh from the group, but out of the 17,500 or so species of fungi in the UK, only a fraction are potentially deadly poisonous – however, it’s best not to take a chance.
We get stuck in and find a fabulous array of fungi with a vast variety of shapes, sizes, colours and textures. There’s the beautiful amethyst deceiver; translucent porcelain agaric; red-capped beechwood sickeners; vivid yellow sulphur tufts; and, on a fallen branch, tiers of tiny, stripey, turkey tails.
On the trees’ tangled roots, Michael points out candlesnuff fungus – wispy black and white wicks that release a puff of smoky spores when swiped with a finger. Tom is engrossed by bleeding stereum, a flesh coloured crust that seeps a red liquid when scarred with a fingernail. Will’s marshmallows turn out to be birch polypores.
We pick our way through bracken and bramble to the bottom of the wood. The children run ahead, whooping wildly – although a stealthier approach might be rewarded with a flash of roe deer. It’s wetter here and fallen beeches are being slowly devoured by giant ganoderma brackets, as woody as the trees themselves, while colonies of jelly fungi cling to rotting logs, looking like they belong under the sea.
Heading home, my pockets are full of nuts, oak apples and chips of flint – natural treasures that we have collected in this wonderful autumnal woodland.
Dommett Wood is nine miles south of Taunton, near Buckland St. Mary, ½ mile off the A303 at Eagle Tavern junction. The entrance is on Folly Lane. ST 278 139. www.somersetwildlife.org
“A fabulous array of fungi, a variety of shapes, sizes, colours and textures”
Author Pete’s sons Tom (left) and Will discover yellow sulphur tufts growing on a rotting beech stump in Dommett Wood
BELOW Heading home after a successful fungi foray
ABOVE RIGHT Some fungi have characteristic odours, so Pete applies the smell test to an earthball
ABOVE Will takes a closer look at an amethyst deceiver