A Fungal Foray at Tudhoe Mill woods

With autumn comes great contrast; dull grey days and mud are set off by rays of warm sunshine, crimson berries, colourful leaves and fungi, which come in a huge array of shapes, sizes, colours, and even smells.

I don’t know about you, but I always feel a little disappointed as the summer comes to an end.

I love long sunny days, wildflowers, bees, butterflies, and a mug of tea in the garden. This year, we have at least been blessed with a sunny September, when the autumn colours begin with lashings of sun to brighten them, softening the blow of the fading summer.

However, with autumn comes great contrast; dull grey days and mud are set off by rays of warm sunshine, crimson berries, colourful leaves and fungi, which come in a huge array of shapes, sizes, colours, and even smells. Did you know that there are fungi which smell of coconut, curry, almonds, gas, apples, aniseed, radishes and even chicken runs?! Like so many things in nature, the more you look, the more you will find. So, put on your boots, coat and woolly hats and join me in the woods, or just sit back with a cuppa and read on.

Stinkhorn fungi

Stinkhorn

On the 13th September, I joined the NEFSG (North East Fungus Study Group), a very friendly group of fellow enthusiasts on a foray at one of our Durham Wildlife Trust reserves, Tudhoe Mill Woods. We divided into smaller groups to make social distancing easier, and set off in search of all things fungi.

We could smell one of the first finds before we could see it! Stinkhorns are quite common at this time of year and their smell, like a rotting carcase (nice!), can often be quickly picked up once you know it, wafting through the woods. These fungi are rather phallic in appearance, and the young cap oozes an olive green sticky gel which carries the spores. The smell attracts flies, which then help to disperse the spores. Apparently, the Victorians were so embarrassed by these fungi they would attack them with cudgels!

Hare's ear Otidea onotica

Hare's ear Otidea onotica

Moving into an area of mixed woodland, the group spotted another beautiful fungus, the hare’s ear fungus. These peachy-orange, wavy discs grow on the ground under broadleaved trees, often beech, reaching 4-10 cm in size. Hidden among autumn leaves they can easily be missed, but once spotted, like so many mushrooms, they are like finding hidden jewels.

I am often asked about edible fungi, “how can you tell if a fungus is edible?” I’m afraid there are no shortcuts, no general rules. How do you know if a plant is edible? The only way is to learn the characteristics of each individual edible plant or fungi, and also to be familiar with any look-alikes. Don’t ever eat anything collected in the wild unless you are 100% certain of its identity and follow the fungi collectors’ code of conduct: https://www.britmycolsoc.org.uk/mycology/conservation/code-conduct

Some species of fungi are very poisonous! The fly agaric is very common under birch and conifers at this time of year. Both the panther cap and the fly agaric, seen at Tudhoe, are in the group Amanita. Amanita typically have a ring on the stem, sometimes spots (remains of a veil) on the cap, a volva (thickened base of stem) and a pale spore print. The cap colour in this group can vary from red, yellow, greenish, brown and almost white depending on the species. Most are poisonous to humans, some lethal, so enjoy taking a lovely photo but leave the mushroom in the woods for animals to enjoy. There are many tales connected with the fly agaric. This fungus, in addition to being poisonous, is also hallucinogenic and was taken by Siberian tribes people and shamans, which may have led to certain legendary winter tales of flying reindeer.

As well as being unusual and beautiful, fungi perform a vital role in woodland habitats. Many species are mycorrhizal, where the majority of the organism is below ground in the form of a mycelium web of thin fibres, called hyphae. The mushroom or toadstool that we see above ground is the fruiting body of the fungi, like an apple sticking above the ground with the rest of the tree below. The hyphae connect to trees, some even connecting several trees to each other. It is a symbiotic (mutually beneficial) relationship where the fungi takes carbohydrates from the trees and supplies them with nutrients and water by acting as an extension of their roots. Other fungi are decomposers, living in the leaf litter or on old wood, or dung, breaking it down and returning nutrients to the soil. Without them we would be buried under meters of leaves during a walk in the woods!

Of course, fungi don’t just grow in the woods. If you grow orchids, you will know that they require special compost inoculated with fungi. Wild British orchids are the same, and so are many other plants. Unimproved grassland is a great habitat for fungi. Another Durham Wildlife Trust reserve, Hedleyhope Fell, is a very good site for grassland fungi, particularly a very colourful group called waxcaps. Though we didn’t find waxcaps at Tudhoe, we did find over 60 species of fungi. After much wandering, searching, chatting and photographing we ended our foray near the entrance to the reserve in a little field, where we found the lovely meadow coral fungus poking through the grass.

Do enjoy the autumn, and all the colour and beauty it brings. Visit our sites and let us know what you see, and if you are not already members, we hope you will consider joining us and supporting our work taking care of our beautiful countryside so all can enjoy it.