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:
The saprophytes, which live on dead organic matter.
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.
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) 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
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) – December 2020, south east UK
These are a bit ho-hum compared to the previous two, but I like the fact that I found this group of them (about 12 or so) growing around our umbrella pine tree. This is just where you would expect to find them because they are another mycorrhizal fungus which usually partners with pine trees. So again, it’s good to see them side by side – healthy soil and healthy tree.
The other thing to say about these is that they are poisonous, potentially fatally so, causing irreparable kidney damage. This was only discovered as recently as 2014 – before that mushroom enthusiasts had been tucking into them!
White Saddle (Helvella crispus) – December 2020, south east UK
I found this fungus in little wrinkly white blobs, nestled among the beech leaves on the lakeside, (the Latin ‘crispa’ means crinkly or wrinkled) which makes sense as it’s most likely another mycorrhizal fungi, partnering with the beech trees. I say ‘likely’ because in my casual research most sites said ‘probably mycorrhizal’, so I suppose this isn’t conclusively proven yet.
It’s part of a group called Helvellaceae – the Elfin Saddles. I would like to imagine elves riding around on these at night, but really I can’t picture it – they don’t look too comfortable to me!
Like the Grey Knight, these were once considered edible, but are now known to contain a toxin that wouldn’t do you any good if you ate too much of it.
Fairy Ink Cap
These little babies are the fifth variety of ink cap that I’ve found in the garden this autumn/winter. The earlier ones, all detailed in earlier posts (links here and here) were Common Ink Cap, Glistening Ink Cap, Pleated Ink Cap and Shaggy Ink Cap.
It’s hard to get a sense of from the photo, but they are really tiny-weeny – just look at the beech nut and leaf next to them for scale. Makes sense that they’re called fairy ink caps, because growing in huge troops as they usually do they look like a magical fairy city.
Unlike the other ink caps (such as the nearby Shaggy Ink Cap, pictured below) they don’t liquify into inky ooze as they mature. (On a side note I learnt a fabulous new word for this today – ‘to deliquesce’ – meaning to dissolve or melt away)
Deliquescing Shaggy Ink Cap – December 2020, south east UK
In terms of the three categories I spoke about at the start, this is a saprophyte, usually found growing on dead wood stumps – as it was here.
Finally, you could eat this – it won’t harm you – but it’s not considered worth it generally as it’s bland and insignificant in taste.
Honey fungus (Armillaria mellea?) – Growing on tree stump, Oct ’20, south-east UK
Now honey fungus, it turns out there’s a lot to say about it, and that can be very good or very bad, depending on which side of nature’s fence you’re coming from. I first came across it (well, one of several varieties – Amarillaria mellea I think) growing off an old stump back in October (pictured above) and having looked it up in my Edible Mushrooms book and several mushroom/foraging sites, it seemed to be a great one to have around – a delicacy no less.
However, I soon afterwards learnt from Gail our gardener that honey fungus is a gardener’s enemy, and another internet search on gardening sites rather than foraging sites and the vibe was very different. The RHS website describes it as ‘the most destructive fungal disease in UK gardens’. This is because it is parasitic, feeding on the roots of living shrubs and trees and eventually killing them.
Within a few weeks of finding the Amarilla mellea on the stump, I found more mushrooms, about 10 metres away, just in the grass. They were quite different in size and colour and I didn’t associate them at the time, but the consensus amongst the knowledgeable community on the Mushroom Spotters UK Facebook group based on my photos is that they are also Honey Fungus. I have learnt that there are several different species of Honey Fungus (Armillaria mellea being one), but they are quite difficult to distinguish from each other without detailed analysis, so the safest way to refer to mushrooms of this type of Armillaria spp (species closely related to Armillaria).
Honey fungus (Armillaria spp) – Oct ’20, south-east UK
So it is something we need to worry about? Is it a threat to the nearby shrubs, trees and plants? We’re not sure, but haven’t seen any signs of harm as yet. Maybe they’re not a threat as long as they’re feeding saprophytically, i.e. on dead wood rather than living. Perhaps the one on the stump had previously been a parasite on it and killed it? Perhaps the grass one was feeding on dead wood underground, maybe even roots of the same tree? I really don’t know – I’m just conjecturing as I learn. I’ll certainly share on here if the story develops.