October 31, 2011
Sunday October 30th
The prospects for finding fungi had improved over the previous week with the arrival of the damp but mild weather. Two of us had recently had successful outings; Mafro harvested Field Mushrooms – Agaricus campestris and the previous night I had dined on Shaggy Ink-caps – Coprinus comatus. Both of these are open grassland species and, as it turned out, down in Dering Woods there was still insufficient ground moisture to kick-start a serious fungal recovery.
This was partly evidenced by the lack of ectomycorrhizal fungi, the ones in beneficial association with trees. The mycelia join up with the tree root systems and as such are found further down beneath the soil. Mushrooms such as Boletes, Russulas (Brittlegills) and Amanitas are of this kind. When you pick the fruit-bodies (remember this is what a mushroom or toadstool is – the fruit-body of an underground organism)you have to dig your fingers into the soil to gently free the base, as many are relatively deep rooting.
We found three representatives of this kind; Fly Agaric – Amanita muscaria, Common Yellow (or Ochre) Russula (or Brittlegill) – Russula ochroleuca and a solitary Brown Roll-rim – Paxillus involutus. The latter is curious because despite having gills it is closely related to the spongy-pored Boletes. Close examination of our specimen revealed the gills becoming tube-like where they ran down the stem.
It is also noteworthy because it was historically widely eaten until it was discovered to contain a cumulative toxin – an antigen, in fact – that, once tip-over point is reached, causes a person’s immune system to turn against them and fatally destroys their red blood cells. This can even happen a year after eating the mushroom with no ill-effects, upon eating a second meal. In parts of Eastern Europe, apparently, some people still gamble their lives with this one.
The rest were mainly saprobic types, either deriving their nourishment from decaying wood or leaf-litter, apart from the destructive Honey Fungus – Armillaria mellea, which attacks living trees. Many, but not all, were LBJs – Little Brown Jobs, originally a birding term, meaning obscure and hard to identify, in this case small fungi with many similar species that require microscopic examination to separate. However, after lunch, our basket provided a challenge for the different levels of experience within our group – to sort them into Genera based on their shared or differing macro-characteristics. I was impressed by how well everyone did.
Early steps in the right direction are the ability to recognise a fungus in all stages in its development from immature to over-mature and to differentiate a mushroom that has turned funnel shaped with age like an umbrella blown inside-out by the wind, from a species that is naturally a funnel shape with decurrent gills (those that run down the stem).
Whilst out and about we encountered several interesting animal field-signs. The burrow of a Brown Rat, Rattus norvegicus, is more often in a slight rise or bank than the one pictured, with a characteristic fan of earth outside the entrance. This one was a bit more sprawling and less neat than usual with a very distinct digging channel.
Carol led us to a Hornet’s nest that she had found earlier in the year. It was no longer occupied and something – probably a squirrel, or possibly a woodpecker – had opened up the lower levels and emptied the queen cells of any remaining larvae. Nature’s interactions are absolutely fascinating.
Back on the farm, and in the middle of a field, something similar had happened with this wasp nest, only the culprit was most definitely a Badger – Meles meles. With their good sense of smell they can sniff out and with their powerful claws, dig out a wasp nest quite easily. Certainly they attack at night and the wasps will be disorientated in the dark, nonetheless, you’d expect a badger to take quite a few stings, especially around the head and mouth where the fur is thinner. Also, when they devour the plump, nutritious grubs they are bound to ingest adults and indeed, may do so deliberately, in which case they must get stung inside the mouth. Perhaps they are immune, or simply don’t care? I’d love to watch the actual scenario play out, having seen the evidence many times.
Despite the afternoon wearing on and the light beginning to fade, a last wander produced more surprises and delights. The adjacent arable field turned out to be overflowing with wild Field Mushrooms – Agaricus campestris, so that everyone who wanted some took home a basketful – or a hatful.
Even more thrilling for me was the fact that the dominant weed of the field was an obscure plant called Sharp-leaved Fluellen – Kickxia elatine, a plant that I had not seen for over 20 years! As if that were not enough, to my absolute delight, a companion plant in the same field turned out to be Round-leaved Fluellen – Kickxia spuria, a species new to me. These plants seem to have the ability to lie dormant as seeds for some time. They can disappear and reappear years later if conditions become right and the seed bank is disturbed. Both are members of the Toadflax family (note the little snapdragon-like flowers) and are by no means common, occurring, as on this occasion, in little local pockets, on cultivated land, though widely distributed across southern England. They are archaeophytes, meaning they were anciently introduced to this country. During the Middle Ages the bitter juice was used as an astringent and K. elatine as a medicine for skin disorders. Like many other important plants they suffered from the over-use of pesticides, but perhaps the maize crop that had previously been harvested was organically produced.
Bad light stopped play. This was too brief a visit for re-acquaintance or a first encounter. The shared feeling was come back as soon as we can.
Saturday October 22nd, 2011
Despite the arid conditions that have prevailed throughout October in this corner of England our seasonal Bushcraft Magazine fungus foray turned up around 30 species, by my reckoning. Mind you, we had to walk over 5 miles through King’s Wood, Challock in Kent to find them. This is the worst year I can remember for a poor October show, although some of the late 1990s were close. Below are two spreads of the collection that came back (with a few fungi repeated in both).
Amanita muscaria – Fly Agaric was the first specimen of the day, under birch in the car park, though it had been smashed to pieces by a mower or strimmer. Several very fine specimens turned up subsequently. In my opinion the best fungus of the foray was a beautiful Tawny Grisette – Amanita fulva growing in moss at the base of a tree . I didn’t photograph it despite its photogenic qualities and I didn’t collect because it would have spoiled its perfection. The brown volva was clear for all to see and the shiny, conical brown cap still retained a fragment on top. We had a small Grisette – Amanita vaginata for comparison (see above).
In addition to those illustrated above we found Deceiver – Laccaria laccata, Honey Fungus – Armillaria mellea ,and what I believe to be a young fruitbody of Stereum sanguinolentum - Bleeding Conifer Crust. The spectacular amber and bloodlike drops are a characteristic feature of two other members of this family that are found on dead broadleaf tree-stumps, while this was on coniferous wood.
The weather was benign, and the warm Autumn sunshine led to us surprising a basking Adder – Vipera berus that had not yet entered hibernation. We also encountered numerous Dor Beetles – Geotrupes stercorarius. These are dung eaters but they also feed on decaying fungi. I have seen them doing this in the New Forest.
As for edibles – not many really. The Deceivers were not in good enough condition. The birch boletes would not have gone far. I elected to try to find a way of making the ‘Witch’s Egg’ of a Stinkhorn – Phallus impudicus palatable on everyone else’s behalf. I took home and baked three of them sliced with onion on top of marinated pork belly topped with pickled peppers and beans. What can I say? Everything around them tasted good. That was my third attempt. I give up now.