Originally published October 2011
Hello everyone! It was with some trepidation that I took a stroll around our little reserve a few days ago. This uncharacterisitic feeling of foreboding was a result of witnessing some of the damage sustained by the trees during Hurricane Katia’s Swan Song. In the event I was pleasantly surprised to find that even our shallow-rooted Ladies of the Wood had survived the early Autumn bluster despite sporting a full compliment of wind-catching leaves.
Of course trees falling in woodland are just part of Ma Nature’s Grand Plan for life, death and regeneration and clearly all plants and animals have their role to play in these processes. However, it is those species belonging to another of the taxonomic Kingdoms (see What’s in a Name – Dec 2009) that are prominent in the life cycles of most of the planet’s inhabitants. Indeed some of these individuals can live for hundreds of years, others are capable of destroying large tracts of woodland and yet more are prized in culinary circles from the finest Parisien restaurants to those who swear by the ‘full english’. By now the learned among you (the school children) will be pointing to that last mouldering, hairy Victoria Plum in the fruit basket and yelling “Fungi”; and they would be right!
Despite seeming to grow like plants, Fungi warrant their own place in the taxonomic scheme of things as they lack the chlorophyll necessary for photosynthesis and as such cannot be categorised under the Plantae. Different species lead either a parasitic or saprophytic (from Greek sapros-putrid and phuton-plant) existance taking their sustenance from living, or more commonly dead, plant and animal material. Unlike plants and animals, fungi are not made up of cells but are comprised of a series of small filament-like tubes called hyphae. The fabulous array of fungi we can see at this time of year are simply the fruiting bodies of the organism. These are usually produced in damp conditions and, once they have released hundreds of spores into the air, tend to rot away within a few days. Given the right conditions each spore will grow sending out several hyphae until they form a fine, disc-shaped web called a mycelium. This is the true fungal organism which continues to grow, infecting trees and soil, though is rarely seen. Once a tree has been infiltrated by spores the mycelium grows through the natural tunnels of the xylem and phloem living off the food stored in the sap wood or even absorbing the wood itself. Many a forester has suffered heartache, and loss of income, due to the fact that our familiar Chestnut trees have been affected by the fungus Cryphonectria parasitica for centuries; the very heart of each tree broken down and absorbed by the insidious invader. There is often a second invasion as one fungus extracts what it wants from the wood leaving a second species to come along and break it down even further.
If all of this has left you in a decidedly sepulchral frame of mind, then be assured that fungi are not just harbingers of death and decay. The breaking down of organic matter releases nitrogen making it available for other organisms to utilise; a process that all living things on earth rely upon. Many of the fruit bodies, or mushrooms as we like to call them, are themselves an integral part of our wild harvest (see Lammas, Mabon and Samhain – Nov 2008). I cannot omit the fact that the other qualities of specific fungi, namely their halucogenic and toxic properties, have been exploited by shamen around the globe so as to keep their various tribes in order. Assassination by mushroom has featured throughout history and it is rumoured that poisonous fungi were among the weapons of choice for such esteemed dynasties as the Caesars and the Borgias.
Finally it is my sad duty to dispel a notion beloved by childrens’ authors and folk lore enthusiasts since before Jeremy Fisher was naught but a tadpole. Faerie rings, traditionally attributed to Tinkerbell, Titania et al, are nothing more than the circular mycelium spreading out through the soil and popping up fruit bodies on warm, damp nights. In fairness to Ms Potter she was a highly respected mycologist who specialised in spore germination and fungal life cycles. I can strongly recommend a wonderful book called Wayside and Woodland Fungi written by W.P.K Findlay and illustrated by, among others, the queen of anthropomorphism herself. Her attention to detail is stunning and there is not a jacketed rabbit or mittened kitten in sight!
A toadstool comes up in a night, –
Learn the lesson, little folk: –
An oak grows on a hundred years,
But then it is an oak.
Christina Georgina Rossetti (1830-1894)
Put me right at firstname.lastname@example.org