Posted: Tuesday 25th October 2016 by Rachel

Bracket fungiBracket fungi - Rachel Shaw

Autumn is the best time of year to see toadstools and mushrooms: the visible fruiting bodies of fungi.

Heralding the start of autumn, shaggy ink caps rose out of the grass next to our car park at work. At first they looked pristine but their shaggy white coats quickly dissolved into the oozy black ink after which they are named. Shaggy ink caps are one of the easiest of fungi to identify. But with more than 15,000 species believed to occur in the UK, most are not so easy.

A few days later, some eerie blue-green fungi appeared. From the colour alone, they looked like they wouldn’t be good to eat. However, with fungi what they look like is no way to tell whether they are edible. You should never eat any fungi you find unless you are 100% certain of the species; it is best to leave them where they are. With further investigation I narrowed down their identity to possibly the verdigris agaric or more likely the blue roundhead. They look very similar and both are thought to be poisonous.

It’s not surprising, given the poisonous nature of some species and their rapid emergence seemingly from nowhere, that fungi have an air of mystery and magic about them. Many thrive on decay and are important decomposers of waste. Even the names, like scarlet elf cups, earth star, dryad's saddle and amethyst deceiver, create the sense of another world. And fungi are in fact in a kingdom all of their own; neither plant nor animal.

What we see, commonly known as the mushroom or toadstool, is the fruiting body, and its function is to release spores. The rest of the fungi remains hidden underground or within trees and is called the mycelium. It’s a mass of spreading filaments (called hyphae) that is present all year round and through which the fungi absorbs nutrients. Some individual mycelia are thought to have been alive for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. The fungal mycelia connect the roots of plants together in a huge network that has been called the ‘Wood Wide Web’ because like our own internet it allows plants to communicate, share resources and even ‘hack’ one another.

Autumn is the best time of year to see the visible fruiting bodies of fungi. Keep a look out for them in all their strange and wonderful shapes and marvel at the remarkable symbiosis with plants that is happening beneath your feet.


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