Candles, copters & colours

Originally published November 2015

Hello everyone! I remember as a child watching films where an intrepid explorer would have a retinue of bearers or strings of mules or camels following behind as he or she hacked through the darkest jungles or panted across endless sand dunes. At the time I thought how useful it would be to have someone carry everything you need as you set forth on an adventure or a hike through our countryside. It is a belief that has been strengthened over the years as I have been subjected to the vagaries of the British weather on numerous occasions, often I feel it would be wise to carry everything from a pair of flip flops to a set of oilskins for a half hour stroll in the woods!


It was with some relief that the rain held off, and the sun burst through the Quarry Wood canopy, on the morning of our Fungi walk. Our worries about it being a fungus, rather than a fungi, walk quickly dissipated as our ‘forager’s eyes’ began to work and, led by Jill with her trusty field guides, everyone spotted something of interest. The ubiquitous Birch Polypore (Piptoporus betulinus) started us off, literally at the gate, and we went on to see some nice specimens of Penny Bun (Boletus edulus), Honey Fungus (Armillaria mellea), Sulphur Tuft (Hypholoma fasciculare), Amethyst Deceiver (Laccaria amethystina) and False Death Cap (Amanita citrina) amongst others. (Click here for the full set of pics.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA bonus sighting for me was the tiny Candlesnuff fungi (Xylaria hypoxylon) and the colourful little Slime Mould (Lycogala terrestre). Lorna’s photography was excellent as always, even when dragged up the slippery rock face to investigate a large clump of Honey Fungus! Not much for the gastronome this year but the enthusiasm of the select group of ‘fungi folk’ made it a very enjoyable morning, and not a raincoat in sight!


What we cannot, and must not, forget is the destructive nature of fungi, a timely reminder being the current Ash Dieback epidemic (see Katia, Lucrezia, October 2011 and Fungal Fatalities, December 2012). It may not be making headline news at present but the problem certainly has not gone away. The latest disturbing prediction from the John Innes Centre in Norfolk, where the presence of the Chalara fraxinea fungus was first identified in this country, is that it is here to stay and we can expect to lose around 90% of our Ash trees over the next fifteen years.

This is going to be a devastating loss for Britain as gaps appear in forests, gardens, parks and hedgerows. The Centre emphasises the importance of not clearing away infected trees because, as the astute mathematicians out there will have noticed, 10% will survive. The surviving Ash trees will be those strains with an immunity to the disease, and it is from that 10% that the species will go on to repopulate the country. A distressing decade or so is ahead of us but, as in the case of all plagues, it will be the survival of the fittest, and we must ensure we do not destroy the fittest specimens in a moment of panic.


This leaves us in a bit of a quandary as far as our little reserve is concerned. The area of land leading to the road bridge is full of Ash saplings that have appeared over the last few years and the vista across the reserve is changing rapidly. My personal feeling is that the area can be thinned out effectively leaving a good number of saplings to grow, hopefully into dieback-resistant, mature trees. If anyone would like some Ash saplings do let me know and they can be moved whilst young. You could be helping to save the national population.

For many people the highlight of the autumnal months is not the display of fungi or indeed the harvesting of Ma Nature’s bounty, but rather the sight of the colourful cloaks our broadleaf trees adorn themselves with at this time of year. This Autumn I was struck by the vivid colours of the Sycamore trees (Acer pseudoplatanus). Their stunning crimson and golden crowns cascading down through the deep green of the late summer leaves was a serious threat to my concentration as I drove around the Sussex roads.


The tree is not native to the British Isles; it is possible that it came over with the Sandal’d and Toga’d Ones, but was not widespread until around the 18th Century. There can be very few people who have not thrown the winged seeds in the air in order to watch them spin, helicopter-like, to the earth. These seeds are scattered far from the parent tree by the seasonal winds and as it is one of the fastest growing deciduous trees in the UK has become the bane of many conservationists, foresters and gardeners, most of whom consider it an invasive weed.


Despite its reputation, Sycamore does have a role to play in both the environment and industry. The tree is home to numerous aphids which are a valuable food source for many birds and insects. 17422053000_7965f37543_oPeople often think that Sycamore bark is the most attractive feature of the tree as close examination reveals a myriad of colours underlying the grey and mottled surface. The wood is creamy white and hard and has been used from everything from flooring material to the backs and ribs of violins. It has also been used traditionally for cooking utensils and milk pails as it does not impart any flavour. I am pleased to note the appearance of several articles and websites defending the tree which, after all, may have been with us for the best part of two thousand years!

Safe in the harbour of home at last
I’ll tell the tale of my dangers past.
O! for my cottage beside the sea,
And the peaceful shade of my sycamore tree!
Charles Mackay (1814-89)

Love them or hate them there is no denying that Sycamore provides a glorious spectacle in our countryside and as the plight of our beautiful Ash has demonstrated, the presence of any species in our countryside cannot be taken for granted. Enjoy the glory that is autumn!
Any thoughts?

Paul Johnson



Img 1-6: Quarry Wood photography by Lorna Neville; Img 7: ash trees at Herstmonceux by debs-eye, used under CC2.0; Img 8: Ash Trees #2 by Edward Dick, used under CC2.0; Img 9: Ash Trees #2 by Edward Dick, used under CC2.0; Img 10: Autumn sycamore by v1ctory_1s_m1ne, used under CC2.0; Img 11: Autumn leaves by Amanda Slater used under CC2.0; Img 12: Sycamore by Lettuce, used under CC2.0; Img 13: Sycamore seeds by mrpbps, used under CC2.0; Img 14: Leaves, grass-23-192 – 577-Sycamore, Great Maple, acer pseudo-platanus by artvintage1800s, used under CC2.0