I love Autumn in the Arboretum, not just the crisp sunny days, the foggy early starts or the colour of the leaves - the mix of reds, oranges and golds - the berries and fruits all around - it's fungi that get me really excited!
There is something magical about fungi; mushrooms and toadstools featured heavily in my childhood. I spent hours reading Enid Blyton's tales "Pip the Pixie" and "The Magic Faraway Tree".
For me it really is fairies at the bottom of the garden - or in some cases is it fairies up in the trees? We see them growing around the base of trees, but how often do we look up into the trees?
Working in the Arboretum I spend a lot of time looking up so I see the magnificent fungal brackets attached, growing within the tree. You can see so many different types and colours but have we really thought about the relationship the tree has with fungi? Are they useful? Are they friendly? Are they a warning sign?
Many of our larger, older trees at Thorp Perrow have been affected by fungal brackets. Some of these parasitic fungi attack the lignin and others attack the cellulose. These can then produce large fruiting bodies from the stem of the tree. Brackets can look quite amazing but they are usually a warning sign of ill health in a tree.
A common and very beautiful bracket fungus is Polyporus squamosus or Dryad’s saddle. This bracket fungus lives on living or dead wood on most broad leaved trees. It’s an edible fungus that can also be used to make paper.
Some fungi are specific to certain tree species, for example, Pitoporus betulinus or Birch Polypore. The bracket fungus attacks weakened trees. This fungus was once used for sharpening razors but it’s now commonly used as a canvas by artists.
Some fungi attack already weakened trees. Pholiota squarrosa or Shaggy scalycap does just this. An opportunistic, parasitic fungus, it feeds off trees already weakened by damage or disease. It is found in clumps around the base of trees. It is often mistaken for Armillaria mellea or Honey fungus, which is another fungus us arborists dread.
In the fungi world it is the symbiotic fungi that truly amaze me. These wonderful fungi form give and take relationships with trees called mycorrhiza. Although they live on or inside trees, they do not cause damage. They absorb nutrients and water, and what they don’t need they pass on to the tree roots, forming a wonderful friendship.
A beautiful example of this is the Amanita muscaria or Fly Agaric (or, as I prefer to call them, fairy toadstools). Extremely poisonous, this toadstool was used to kill flies. It was broken up and soaked in milk; flies fed from this and were poisoned to death. My beautiful yet deadly fairy toadstool.
Another example of a relationship with fungi is lichens. Lichens are two organisms living together as one. It is the relationship between fungi and algae. A different lichen develops when different combinations of fungi and algae grow together. They each depend on one another to survive. The fungus feeding from the algae, and the algae getting protection from the fungus - a very clever relationship.
Fungi have appeared in fairy tales for years. I can understand why they have such a reputation. They pop up overnight, as if by magic! Fairy rings are a result of the fungus spreading outwards underneath the soil, with the mushrooms popping up around the edges. People used to believe that fairies and elves danced around these magic circles and used them as little stools to sit on.
So next time you see a mushroom take a good look around you and wonder who it’s living alongside? Is it a ‘goodie’, is it a ‘baddie’ or is it simply magical?
As our resident fungus expert, Gordon Simpson says “Remember, all toadstools are edible but some only once!”
Don’t forget to look up!
Faith Roskrow is the curator of Thorp Perrow Arboretum. Explore the fascinating world of fungi by attending one of the Arboretum's upcoming fungi forays.