Autumn was my Uncle’s favourite time of year. He loved the bright changing colours, the crunch of leaves underfoot and the earthy aromas that autumn brought, not to mention the sloes in the hedge which he steeped in gin. On many a crisp autumnal day we enjoyed the delights of the Worcestershire countryside together, and I often remember him in this season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. I love autumn too though I’m not sure that I could say it’s my favourite season, mainly because I don’t think I could separate one from another; I love them all in their own way. One thing which I particularly enjoy in autumn though is the emergence of all manner of fungi. While some species can be found almost year round, autumn is by far the best season for a fungi foray, producing toadstools in a great array of shapes, sizes and colours; sometimes in vast numbers too.
The toadstool itself is actually the fruiting body of the fungus, much like the apple on the tree, and the rest is concealed underground in a network of fine filaments called mycelium. They grow for far longer than we see them above ground and play an important part in the breakdown of organic materials. I’m not even going to pretend that I know what they all are – there are a few distinctive species that I can just about cope with, but next to a seasoned mycologist I know nothing and watching an expert’s skill at identifying each one with relative ease is an astonishing sight.
Let’s begin with the first of a few images; it is of a tiny specimen no more than half a centimetre across the cap. I have no idea what species it is (though I welcome any suggestions!) but I found it growing among moss on the trunk of an Oak tree and I rather liked the little group. It had just begun to rain which added an extra shine to the tiny white caps.
The next photo is another of a toadstool with water on its cap but this one was photographed in much drier weather thankfully. I can also identify this one; it is an interesting specimen called the Saffron-drop Bonnet (Mycena crocata), as its name suggests, it has a very orange sap which oozes out if it gets damaged. It is also prone to another much simpler fungus called Bonnet mould fungus (Spinellus fusiger) which grows on it. There was some on the clump next to this one but I couldn’t get there to photograph it as it was deep amongst the branches of a long-fallen tree. It was quite fascinating to look at though as it appeared like a white fur all over the toadstool, and under a hand lens each hair had a shiny black glob on the end.
Sticking with ones I can identify I found this next one on the same day as the last, growing amongst grass and moss on an ant hill. It has a more unusual shape compared to the traditional fairy-tale toadstool and is called the Meadow Coral fungus (Clavulinopsis corniculata). In fact the second half of the Latin name means “little horns” which is rather fitting as they do look like small antlers.
On the yellow theme, this next image is of a common fungus found around deciduous trees. It can usually be recognised from quite a distance owing to its characteristic bright colour. It is called Sulphur Tuft (Hypholoma fasciculare) for fairly obvious reasons, and I have been told that it is bioluminescent, giving off small amounts of light which make it appear to glow. This clump certainly glowed in the low light of the Lady’s Wood nature reserve where I found it, though whether that was simply due to the bright colour I’m not sure.
There are a number of smaller yellow toadstools which can often be found in grassy areas too. Many belong to the Galerina genus. Whether this is one of them I can’t be certain but it is certainly similar and I came across it growing in a mossy patch of my parents’ lawn. My own lawn is similarly full of fungi at the moment too though not so photogenic!
Most of the images I’ve shown so far are of fungi growing on or amongst moss but this is only one of many substrates on which they proliferate. Most often they can be found amongst the leaf litter on a woodland floor like this next photograph. I couldn’t possibly tell you what species it is I’m afraid but I am rather fond of this type of toadstool with their delicate stipe (stalk) and almost translucent appearance.
Colour is key too and while this last specimen is brown and others you’ve seen above are yellow, there are also some spectacular examples of other, more surprising, colours such as red; the Fly Agaric, a classic of fairy-tales with white spots made up of the veil that protects the cap as it emerges and the Vermilion Waxcap. There are pink ones too such as the Ballerina Waxcap or the Rosy Bonnet, and purple Amethyst Deceivers are always a delight to find. There is even a vibrant orange one which looks like orange peel and aptly known as the Orange Peel Fungus.
My last image is not brightly coloured but is a slightly larger toadstool, the Buttercap, again growing on the woodland floor but this time beneath Pine trees. Some species of fungus are particular to certain tree species and this can be a key indicator in their identification.
This is just a small sample of the fungi I’ve found over the years. Hopefully in time to come my identification skills will improve or I will at least get some assistance with identifying what I’ve photographed! Unfortunately though even a good photograph is not always enough for a clear identification as there are a great many other factors to consider such as spore colour, gill structure, stipe (stalk) characteristics and even smell (I bet you never knew there was a mushroom that smelled like coconut!?).
Photographing them in situ is something which is often tricky due to poor light, sometimes rather unsightly specimens and tricky to access locations. I hope that these images prove that there can be beauty in some less glamorous aspects of nature and that I have encouraged you to take a closer look if you go down to the woods this autumn. I will leave you with one last word of warning though; while many are good to eat there are also a great number which are poisonous and look similar to one another so please don’t take them home to eat unless you are with an expert!