Lost In the Woods with The Fungi Club: How mushroom hunters never made it back from Wimbledon Common
( ...was a thought that crossed my mind more than once as I set off with the club’s expert guide for the day, Mario Tortelli )
By The Fungi Club's education & outreach coordinator James Agyepong-Parsons
It wasn’t long before we found the bloody-red, slab-of-meat look alike, beefsteak fungus (Fistulina hepatica), growing from the base of a sweet chestnut tree - a common host for this parasite.
There were plenty of excellent wood-rotters - called saprobes - scattered around the woods: the perfectly formed Pear-shaped Puffballs (Apioperdon pyriforme), the grey upside down umbrellas of Clouded Funnel (Clitocybe nebularis) the dizzyingly-deep purples of the Purple Jellydisc (Ascocoryne sarcoides) and the coal-ashen painted Candlesnuff Fungus (Xylaria hypoxylon), which I like to call snuff.
Snuff arrives late to the party when it comes to the wood rotters, which break down dead and dying wood composed of cellulose and lignin. Where there’s snuff there probably used to be Honey Fungus (Armillaria Mellea) and Sulphur Tufts (Hypholoma fasciculare), both of which we found on the walk.
Along the way, we were drawn into some awesome insights from plant pathologist Jassy Drakulic who joined in the foray and studies the honey fungus tree-killer as part of her work. The honey fungus is bad-ass. The way its thick black spiderweb mycelial threads - called rhizomorphs - fan the surface of bark is something straight out of Venom’s marvel universe. As they spread from one tree’s roots to another, attacking both living and dead trees, the honey fungus’ rhizomorphs look like the crisscrossing laces of my own boot, hence the common nickname: bootlaces. In Oregon, US, you’ll find the “humongous fungus”: a single honey-fungus species (Armillaria ostoyae) that covers nearly 1,000 hectares of ground and is thousands of years old… let that sink in for a moment.
So far, so good. No-one had got lost. But the party was fanning out wider and wider in search of our fungal friends. What was becoming clear was that whilst the season for wood rotters was on display, there weren’t many ectomycorrhizal fungi to be found - those fungi which live in and around tree roots in an alliance of nutrient exchange.
Two noticeable exceptions were the lactating milk juices of the Oakbug Milkcap (Lactarius quietus) found growing exclusively with oak trees and the Slimy Milkcap (Lactarius blennius), which favours cosying up to beech trees, hence it’s other common name: beech milkcap. But my personal highlight was seeing the face of our club’s comms guru and Fat Fox co-founder, Lex, light up with the discovery of two ruby-red, cornflake-speckled Fly Agarics (Amanita muscaria). Another mycorrhizal species, it is the mushroom of fairy tales, Nintendo’s very cool superhero Mario, and reindeers’ hallucinations.
Before the walk finished, the club took the opportunity to look at some of the different
grassland species still out and about on the common (while I took a headcount). A personal highlight was the False Chanterelle (Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca) and the earlier find of Ruby Boletes (Hortiboletus rubellus).
As we wrapped, I slinked off to grab a tea and debrief, relieved no-one had got lost on our watch but wondering what everyone had thought of the afternoon. It was a great learning process for us. Next time round, we’ll be looking to integrate a little bit more context into the walks for beginners, discussing more about the ecology of fungi at-large and even some of their uses by us mycosapiens.
I’d like to thank everyone who joined us on the first foray hosted by The Fungi Club and we’re very grateful for Mario’s expert insights too. Do get involved on our Discord channel where you can reach us and other club members equally fascinated by fungi.
Just before I left, I was kindly handed two mycology books that were going spare by one of the foray’s members. The donation inspired me to start the club’s very own library. So thank you Nat!