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    Photo: Isabel Hardman

    The wonder of winter fungi

    17 November 2020

    There are few things in nature more unnatural-looking than fungi. These organisms regularly confound the limits of our minds, showing us how poor our imaginations are in comparison to what nature can really create.

    Here’s an example. Have you ever been out for a walk and come across a piece of dead wood that appears to have been painted bright blue? For years, I assumed that these scraps I often found lying around had fallen from fences stained by human hands. Only recently did I discover that the colour was entirely natural: it comes from a fungus.

    The Green Elfcup, Chlorociboria aeruginascens, doesn’t look like something nature would make. It is the sort of intense turquoise you’d expect to find in a plastic toy, not something that colonises decaying wood. Its mycelium – the main, vegetative part of a fungus – spreads through the dead wood from trees such as oak and stains it bright turquoise. Its fruiting bodies, the ‘cups’ that we more commonly associate with fungi, are also bright blue/green and tiny: less than 1cm across. Craftsmen have used the stained wood, known as ‘green oak’, in decorative inlays. It is surprisingly common, though you are less likely to see the fruiting bodies than you are the mycelium.

    What to look for

    Photo: Isabel Hardman

    Green Elfcups are just one species among a panoply of strange and wonderful fungi that grow wild in the UK. Most of us know the Fly Agaric, Amanita muscaria, the archetypal fairytale mushroom. Not so many of us know the far more vivid Scarlet Waxcap, Hygrocybe coccinea, or the Scarlet Elfcup, Sarcoscypha austriaca. Both are so bright you might initially think they are plastic rubbish. The Blue Roundhead, Stropharia caerulea, is similarly unnatural-looking: its emerging fruiting bodies are so blue and so shiny and gelatinous that the first time I saw them, I assumed they were blobs of melting slush puppie from a discarded cup. 

    Other fungi are easy to miss if you’re not keeping an eye out: but what a loss it would be not to see the rich Purple Amethyst Deceiver, Laccaria amethystina, or the Wood Blewit, Clitocybe nuda, a pale lilac mushroom which seems luminous among the leaf litter of a woodland. One of my favourites is the Rosy Bonnet, Mycena rosea, a pale pink mushroom which often looks alarmingly like a nipple.

    You might be surprised also that some fungi have a strong and beautiful fragrance. The Aniseed Funnel, Clitocybe odora, is a grey-blue colour and you don’t even need to get particularly close to these mushrooms to pick up their scent. Others, like the Stinkhorn, are less pleasant to smell. The Stinkhorn is a striking fungus: its Latin binomial Phallus impudicus tells you all you need to know about its shape.

    Where to look for fungi

    Photo: Isabel Hardman

    At this time of year, you’ll find fungi fruiting almost anywhere. Some even sprout from tiny cracks in pavements. Of course, the most likely sites are grassland, including city parks and playing fields, and woodlands, where there is plenty of damp, decaying vegetation for fungus to colonise.

    Look out for street trees sporting a huge bright orange/yellow fungus known as Chicken of the Woods, Laetiporus sulphureus. Fly agarics like to grow under birch trees. The Green Elfcup tends to grow on dead oak wood. Giant Puffballs the size of footballs can pop up on sports pitches. Parasol mushrooms, which can also end up ludicrously large, enjoy longer grass. Keep an eye out wherever there is leaf litter and a bit of shade: the chances are that fungi will be busily popping up.

    Foraging

    I’ve never been bold enough to pick wild mushrooms, and the more I learn about the different species that grow wild in the UK, the less inclined I am to take my chances when many edible and deadly species can look so similar. A good fungi guide will tell you if a specimen can be eaten and whether it’s worth the bother, but it will also warn you to only eat ones you are absolutely certain about, and to beware of devastating wild populations by being greedy and picking too much.

    How to learn more

    DK’s Mushrooms and Toadstools: An Illustrated Guide is excellent for beginners, as are the Collins guides. There is also a basic Mushroom app which helps you to go through an identification key of some of the common fungi. The British Mycological Society Facebook group is very friendly and full of photos of incredible wild mushrooms and toadstools. You’ll also find local fungi groups on Facebook whose members are often happy to share ID tips and give you ideas of where to go looking. On twitter, the hashtag #fungifriday performs a similar function.