October 201: Nature Watch

September 29 2017

This is the time of year when many strange things erupt from the soil, from wood and even from flower beds.

This is the time of year when many strange things erupt from the soil, from wood and even from flower beds. Prospero’s “midnight mushrooms” can appear overnight and will wither as quickly or collapse to mush with the first frosts, if they’re not of the kind that dissolve into ink of their own accord. And flower beds? Not a classic habitat for fungi, but the recent innovation of mulching rose beds with wood chips has introduced some new species to our urban jungle. 

A recent walk in the park produced three species of fungi that simply would not have been there a few years ago. One is called redlead roundhead with rounded caps of a shining burnt orange. This is probably an alien species (from another country, not another planet!) originally introduced with imported woodchips. Nearby, a second species has slender stems supporting pale caps, which start off as a simple bell but then flare out into a broad brim. It is a pert and pretty mushroom and I’m fairly sure this is a brittlestem but this is a big group and I’m no expert.

These are both “trooping” mushrooms; this lovely word describes their tendency to grow together in groups, not tightly huddled as if frightened of the cold but marching along in straggling lines like Napoleon’s troops retreating from Moscow.  The way mushrooms grow together (or individually) is a useful feature and should be noted if you want to identify a new specimen. 

The third interesting species we found in the rose beds of St Andrew’s Park was the fluted bird’s nest fungus. This is much harder to spot and may entail some kneeling down and close peering, but it will be worth the funny looks you get because this is an unusually cute little fungus. The fruiting body emerges as a tiny bristly club then unfurls to become cup-shaped; within is a little cluster of spore-bearing globules which look for all the world like miniature eggs in a nest. The fluting around the cup completes its common name.

Fungi can grow on many substrates and if you want to see more you have only to leave some bread in the bread bin too long, or watch the concentric rings of brown rot grow on an old pear. We find that forgetting a tub of cream cheese produces some spectacular results. But some have creepy and disturbing habits. For example, there is one species that grows on old horses hooves (no really, my eagle-eyed partner once found one of these – the hoof was long since detached from the horse) and then there are those that grow on us. Athlete’s foot and ringworm are both caused by fungi but the habit of growing in rings, almost magical in the fairy ring champignon, is a lot less attractive when it appears on your skin. They do say that if you have the patience you can grow a tiny crop of mushrooms. Then again, you can get creams for that.