The kingdom under the woods
There’s another world beneath the trees that like many essential backroom functions is hidden and shrouded in mystery. It is the kingdom of the fungi, and the autumn is a great time to see them.
The power of a name
Mushrooms and toadstools are the fruiting spores of fungi and the distinction between them first appeared in print in the mid fifteenth century and reflects the dilemma about what is and isn’t safe to eat. So, while mushrooms were defined as edible, toadstools were defined as inedible or poisonous. Browse through any field guide, and you’ll quickly find this distinction isn’t accurate, but with over 15,000 species in the UK of which about 3,000 produce visible fruiting spores, it’s hardly surprising that this traditional definition isn’t watertight.
The parasitic approach
Like other lifeforms, fungi can be parasitic, taking all their food from a living host and causing heartwood rot. The most visible parasitic fungi are the brackets, whose fruiting spores can be seen all year round, and which are also called polypore or shelf fungi.
The distinctive Turkey Tail fungus grows out from the tree in a series of multi-coloured concentric circles with a paler edge and is often found in tiered groups. Described as weakly parasitic , it can also live by decomposing dead deciduous trees. Traditionally used in Chinese medicine to boost the immune system, it contains antioxidants and is being studied as a potential cancer support treatment.
Bracket fungi can be covered in algae as they mature. Photo credit: Jane Halliday
Chicken of the woods grows on deciduous trees, such as oak
The concentric rings of Turkey Tails are paler at the rim. Photo credit: Jane Halliday
Birch polypore Photo credit: Jane Halliday
Healthy woodlands always contain dead wood and leaf litter and because of the tough cellulose and lignin they contain, it takes a specialist group of saprobic fungi to break them down. King Alfred’s Cakes, also called cramp balls, and coal fungus, may look small, but the fungus is strong enough to break down the lignin in dead and decaying wood. They can remain on the wood for several years becoming harder and drier and were traditionally used as fire lighters.
About 3 tonnes of leaf litter fall onto every hectare of deciduous woodland each year, and the vivid rosettes of the cup-shaped Orange Peel is one of the fungi that breaks them down. Found on gravel, and compacted soil the Orange Peel is edible, but adds more colour than taste to a meal.
King Alfred’s Cakes grow in concentric circles. Photo credit: Jane Halliday
Clouded funnels decompose leaf litter and twigs. Photo credit Jane Halliday
Porcelain mushrooms living on dead beech. Photo credit: Jane Halliday
The distinctive rosettes of the Orange Peel .
here’s still a lot to discover about fungi, but sadly we already know they are facing threats. It takes 40 – 50 years for mycorrhizal fungi to re-establish themselves after clear felling and climate change is starting to alter when they fruit. When we conserve our woodlands, we need to remember the importance of fungi.
By Jane Halliday