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Fungi Finale

For my final post of 2020 I’m returning to my new found love of fungi with a round up of some more amazing species that I’ve found in the garden during the past month or so. I’m discovering that fungi are just like wild flowers – popping up unexpectedly all over the place, and in so many colourful and curious species.

One of the useful things I’ve learned about fungi recently is that they can be roughly put into three groups:

  1. The saprophytes, which live on dead organic matter.

  2. The parasites, which live on living organisms. After their host has died, many switch to a saprophytic existence, feeding on their host’s decaying body.

  3. The mycorrhizae, which form a symbiotic partnership with plants, especially trees. They connect up to the tree’s root system, take sugar to feed, and in exchange, give the tree access to much more water and nutrients through their wide-ranging underground mycorrhizal networks.

Witches Butter

Tremella mesenterica

Witches Butter (Tremella mesenterica) on a decaying ash tree branch – November 2020, south east UK

I loved spying this sunny jelly-like fungi emerging from a decaying ash tree branch on a grey day in November – a little globule of brightness in the gloom. It was quite small – not much bigger than my thumb nail. It’s not feeding on the wood itself though – it’s a parasitic fungi, living off yet another fungi, a saprophytic, wood-feeding one (possibly the rosy crust fungus).

Besides the surprising colour, my favourite thing about it is the name – Witches Butter. It has this name because in European legend, if this fungus appeared on the door of your house, it was a sign you had been cursed by a witch. To rid yourself of the curse you had to pierce the fungus with pins. And as if one excellent name like this wasn’t enough, it also has the brilliantly descriptive alternative, Yellow Brain!

It is edible, but not very tasty from what I’ve read.

Common Earth Ball

Scleroderma citrinum

Common Earth Ball – December 2020, south east UK

This one looks like a dinosaur egg to me. There’s definitely something prehistoric seeming about the scaly surface, and the exploded, charred-looking fissure in the top.

It is, however, a Common Earth Ball, which is a very pedestrian name unbefitting of my dinosaur imaginings. The name is actually pretty apt to be fair, as they are common in the UK, and before opening, they look a lot less wild and more like tidy little balls in the earth like this one…

Common Earth Ball – image from Wiki Commons

I found several of these in mid-December by our lake-side, which is bounded by a ring of mature beech trees. It is a mycorrhizal fungi, specialising in relationships with deciduous trees, including beech, so presumably a wonderful symbiosis is happening under the soil, with trees and fungi connected and supporting each other.

Why the ruptured cap? That’s because, when the fungi is mature, it breaks open to allow the spores inside (a black powder which has caused that ‘charred’ look on the picture above) to disperse by being blown or washed away. This picture gives you a better idea of the powder (which is poisonous by the way, so definitely not an edible one) inside…

Common Earth Ball – December 2020, south east UK

Grey Knight

Tricholoma terreum