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From another kingdom: Fungi

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Martin Aaron Martin Aaron | 10:07 UK time, Thursday, 20 October 2011

Despite a chill in the air, autumn is a great time for nature and not everything migrates or runs for cover.

Beneath the damp, decaying leaves lie fungi in a variety of shapes, sizes and vibrant colours.

Yesterday I attended a fungi walk at the National Botanic Gardens of Wales, followed by a live broadcast on fungi for the BBC Radio 4 series Saving Species.

It's safe to say that my knowledge of fungi has grown ten fold since yesterday and I came away with a much greater appreciation of these remarkable organisms.

There are an estimated 1.5 million species of fungi in the world, and yet we've only managed to identify around 100,000 of those which is staggering when compared with the fact that 90% of the world's plants have been accounted for.

Fungi, by it's very nature suffers from a bad press but has literally touched us all, in more ways than we realise - from brewing beer to penicillin and from cheese to chocolate - fungi has been involved.

The fly agaric was used by the Vikings as an hallucinogen before battle. Fungi is also apparently responsible for stopping the great army of Alexander The Great who it is now believed, died after eating rye bread, infected with the toxic ergot fungus.

Fungi has a huge reach - from the frozen landscapes of Antarctica to the most humid and tropical rainforests. Closer to home it's found between our toes and inside in our not so sterile fridges.

Fungi play an incredibly important role. They are the ultimate recyclers causing things to rot and decay and without them, we'd be up to our necks in all manner of unpleasantries.

Plants also benefit, providing food and shelter in return for nutrients and in areas of high pollution and toxicity it is fungi which return first, allowing plants to establish themselves on top.

It's not all goodness and light though, fungi do kill trees, create harmful and deadly bacteria and try to destroy our cereal crops with rust fungi but I'm focussing on the positive aspects today.

Wales you'll be pleased to know, is the best location for waxcap fungi in Britain which, in turn is the best in Europe.

Hay on Wye is home to an internationally rare smut fungi known as, smutty naked ladies - be careful when you enter that into a search engine!

Waxcaps are a grassland species and an excellent environmental indicator, only growing in pristine locations, untouched by man and pesticides.

Think wild meadows and country houses with vast expanses of ancient lawn - managed and mown organically for generations.

The unploughed meadows near the farm have over 20 types of waxcap fungi including the rare splendid waxcap with it's brilliant scarlet cap.

I joined Bruce Langridge his colleague Tudor Davies and a host of fungi enthusiasts for a quick woodland foray to see what was around at this time of year.

The aptly named deadman's fingers clinging to a rotting log.

The aptly named, dead man's fingers clinging to a decaying log.

To the untrained eye, the woods looked fairly devoid of any fungi but the more you look, the more you see and before long, Bruce and Tudor were producing more fungi than I could poke a rotting stick at.

Along the way we encountered turkey tails, dead man's fingers, Jew's ear, yellow brain, red coral spot and white coral fungi as well as green cup, dog stinkhorn and splash cap each with their own colourful background stories.

The dog stinkhorn, is a small thin, phallus-shaped woodland fungus, with a dark tip which begins to stink in order to attract flies to it which in turn distribute the spores.

Dog stinkhorn (phallus impudicus) by brackenb.

Dog stinkhorn (phallus impudicus) by brackenb.

In the 1800s, Charles Darwin's daughter 'Etty' found the dog stinkhorn to be so immoral in appearance that she single handedly embarked on an eradication process, encouraging people to destroy them.

Unfortunately the one we uncovered had some growing to do - around six inches, but give it a few days and it should be quite visible.

Green cup fungi was apparently used in Victorian times as a it added a nice green veneer for ornate wooden boxes and was known as Tundridge ware.

The wonderful splash cup or bird's nest fungi.

The splash cup or bird's nest fungi as they resemble tiny bird's nests filled with eggs.

The turkey tail is a common or bracket fungus that grows on the sides of logs and trees and as the name suggests, resembles an American turkey's fanned out tail.

A colourful turkey tail by Gale Jolly.

Colourful turkey tail fungi by Gale Jolly.

Jew's ear or jelly ear fungus is so named because Judas Iscariot is believed to have hanged himself from an elder tree, where they are commonly found.

Jelly ear fungus or Jew's ear by Eiona Roberts.

Jelly ear fungus or Jew's ear by Eiona Roberts.

I hope I've sparked an interest in fungi for some of you. There is so much more I could have written but the National Botanic Gardens of Wales have an excellent exhibition on at the moment entitled 'From Another Kingdom' which can tell the story of fungi far better than I can.

I'll leave you with one more startling fungi fact: The heaviest living thing on the planet is not the blue whale. It is actually the honey fungus, which can cover an area of between seven and eight hectares underground.

The team at the gardens are desperate for help in recording fungi so get in touch if you have an interest. The Llanelli Naturalists also run regular fungi walks including one this Saturday, 22 October at Lower Lliedi Reservoir from 2 pm.

The fungi episode for Saving Species on BBC Radio 4 will be broadcast on November 1 at 11 am.



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