Here at Yarner Wood we are treated to a wonderful array of habitats for plant and animal species. Visitors come from far and wide to observe breeding migratory birds like the pied flycatcher. Lichenologists can be fascinated for hours by the specimens growing thick on the old oaks of Yarner Wood and the Bovey Valley. However, there is one often overlooked kingdom that grows abundantly across the reserve. Spending most of the year underground, for a few short months they can be appreciated above the ground. In this blog, Conservation Assistant, Ed Donnell, looks back at this year’s season and explains why he thinks fungi are worth celebrating!
Fungi are not only abundant here, but they form a vital part of the ecosystem. They decay living and dead trees, creating new habitats for tree dwelling species and saprophytic organisms, along with their predators. This process of decay adds nutrients back into the soil, thereby promoting plant growth and the regeneration of young trees to replace the old ones. Fungi are crucial to maintaining the health of woodland ecosystems.
Teaching and learning at Yarner Wood
On a mild and bright Sunday in October, a group of twenty fungi enthusiasts joined Dr David Farley, for a guided tour of Yarner Woods’ mycological delights. The plan was to meet at Middle Trendlebere car park, and to then, find, identify and discuss different species as we walked. Little did we know, that a ‘rival’ fungi workshop, was taking place on the same day at Manaton church! So after redirecting some people to the right place, we gathered the group together and were on our way. It didn’t take long for us to find what we were looking for. The birch trees surrounding the car park, turned out to be the perfect habitat for fungi to flourish. We only had to walk a few steps, before David had his work cut out, as he was presented with a number of different examples.
The main fungi habitats
When it comes to fungi identification, it is very important to note where, and on what, the specimen is growing. Parasitic and endophytic fungi grow on living wood, the former often kill the host over time and the latter grow within the host without destroying it. Parasitic and endophytic fungi often produce fruiting bodies on trees, that are called brackets. The species of the host tree is important for identification, with certain fungi specialised to certain trees.
Mycorrhizal fungi, form a relationship with the roots of trees and plants, that is often beneficial to both organisms. This symbiotic relationship allows greater nutrient transfer to the host tree – through increasing soil and nutrient supply to the roots – as well as a vast array of other functions, such as assisting in communication and protection. Mycorrhizal varieties can be found on the forest floor, underneath the trees with which they have a relationship. They are also found in fields, forming the fairy rings through symbiosis with the roots of grasses. Once again, the tree or plant, with which they are found is very important for identification.
Saprophytic fungi are found on decaying and dead trees and plants. They form a crucial part of the nutrient cycle in woodlands and create microhabitats that allow for a flourishing ecosystem. These can be found on dead wood, or leaf litter, with some being specific to the dead wood they are found on, but many are not so selective!
When we see fungi growing, we are mostly looking at only one part of the organism, that is, the fruiting body. Most of the biological processes occur under the ground or within the host tree through the hyphae of the fungus. This root-like network is the point of contact between the fungus and its environment, whether living tree, dead wood or leaf litter. What we use to identify the fungus, however, are the parts that appear above the surface. The fruiting body is important for reproduction as it is responsible for creating the spores that allow the fungus to propagate. Characteristics of the fruit, and their spores, are key identifiers to confirm family and species. With that in mind, here are a few easily recognised fungus Genera to get to know, that are a great first step for a budding mycologist!
The Amanita Genus – This genus is the most important to learn for all potential foragers as it contains some of the most poisonous varieties in the UK such as the Death Cap, Panther Cap and Destroying Angel. They are very recognisable with their white gills, distinctive skirt around the stipe (stem) and thickened volva at the stipe’s base. The most notable of all the Amanita is the Fly Agaric (pictured). It is instantly familiar from illustrated fairy tales with its bright red cap, often flecked with the remnants of a white veil.
The Milkcap (Lactarius) Genus – Appearing in a wide variety of colours, they are mostly found on soil in woodland. The main identifying feature of this family is the production of a milk-like substance when broken or damaged. Identification is often helped by tasting a small portion of the specimen, with a spicy, chilli flavour indicating non-edibility. It goes without saying that this part of the identification should only be performed by experts!
The Inkcap (Coprinus, coprinellus, parasola) Genus – This large genus has great variety in colour, size and shape but many of the individual species share certain characteristics. Often they can be identified by their tall stipe, elongated cap and long, crowded gills. The most recognisable fungus of the species is the Shaggy Inkcap or Lawyer’s Wig. It can be found on soil or sometimes grass with gills that turn from white through to black with age. Once this mushroom decays it can be found as a runny, ink-like substance that can be used just in the way that the name suggests!
The Boletus Genus – Another large group of fungi that are very important for any potential forager. Many of the most prized edible mushrooms can be found in this genus, most notably boletus edulis; the cep, penny bung or porcini. They all have pores beneath the cap in place of gills and many species change colour when cut. Once again great care must be taken when picking fungi to eat, as there are many poisonous boletes that can be mistaken for edible varieties.
Here at East Dartmoor NNR we’d like to thank all the people who attended the fungi walk and contributed to an exciting and informative afternoon. Most importantly we would like to thank Dr David Farley for his invaluable expertise and his generosity in giving up an afternoon to help beginners! Hopefully a few more fungi enthusiasts have been created and more attention has been drawn to an often over-looked kingdom that is beautiful, varied and ecologically crucial.
Written by Ed Donnell, Conservation Assistant
If you are interested in learning more about fungi in Devon – follow this link www.devonfungusgroup.uk