Roy McGhie – Conservation Project Assistant
Fungi is found on every environment on the planet and plays a vital part in many ecosystems. They don’t actually belong to either the plant or animal kingdoms, they have their own. Fungi are key decomposers and so are crucial in terms of nutrient cycling. Because fungi don’t photosynthesise like plants (they don’t contain any chlorophyll) they instead rely on absorbing food from their environment to survive. This is why you will often see fungi growing on or around other plant material, living or dead. By decomposing organic plant material, particularly lignin and cellulose that make up the bodies of plants, the locked up carbon, nitrogen and minerals are released and used again by other plants and organisms.
Fungi often form important symbiotic relationships with other organisms. These can be antagonistic (injurious to the host e.g Hymenoscyphus fraxineus), mutualistic (mutually beneficial) or commensal (apparently neither injurious nor beneficial). One of the most well-known mutualistic relationships is that with mycorrhizal fungi. It is estimated that over 90% of all plant species are part of a mycorrhizal relationship and are dependent on it to thrive. Mycorrhizae are found between plant roots and the soil, and help other plants collect moisture and nutrients (such as nitrate and phosphate). In return the mycorrhizae are able to use the carbohydrates and sugars that the plants produce. It has been suggested that a single oak tree can have up to 19km of associated mycelium – these are the thread-like hyphae (filaments) that extend outwards from the mycorrhizal fungi.
For most fungi these hyphae are their main part. Even when these hyphae tangle together and are visible to the human eye we often don’t see them because they’re underground or within their food source e.g. a tree. Some fungi however produce fruiting bodies in order to release spores – these are the mushroom parts which appear when it’s warm and damp. The mushroom parts are short lived and die back within a season but fungi can live for years and years.
The North York Moors hosts a great variety of fungi types and their mushrooms, from waxcaps, inkcaps and milkcaps to chanterelles, boletes and russulas. Because of the amount of plant material available woodlands, particularly ancient woodlands, are an excellent place to see mushrooms in the late summer/autumn and some varieties in the spring. To encourage fungi on your own land leave deadwood where it is (either standing or on the ground) instead of clearing it away. Managed grasslands are also a good habitat to find mushrooms. Waxcaps in particular can be found on grassland around historic houses and churchyards, and also on grazed pastures. The best grassland fungi sites typically have a short turf, plenty of moss, are well drained, poor in nutrients and usually unfertilised. Many waxcaps form mutualistic relationships with mosses, so to encourage fungi in your own garden don’t remove the moss.
Over the centuries the hundreds of types of fungi in England have been given graphic common names like ‘Ashen Knight’, ‘Bitter Poisonpie’, ‘Dead Man’s Fingers’, ‘Dryad’s Saddle’, ‘Flaming Scalycap’, ‘Humpback Brittlegill’, ‘King Alfred’s Cakes’, ‘Mealy Bigfoot Webcap’, ‘Old Man of the Woods’, ‘Papillate Pinkgill’, ‘Plums and Custard’, ‘Powdercap Strangler’, ‘Scurfy Deceiver’, ‘Slippery Jack’, ‘Sordid Blewit’, ‘Witches Butter’ … I’ll stop there.
Fungi are an often underrated element of biodiversity; working away, mostly out of site, maintaining healthy ecosystems that are so important to the natural environment..
A few types of wild (uncultivated) mushrooms are edible, many taste of nothing, and others are toxic and quite often deadly. You always need to be absolutely sure which is which if you’re intending to eat one. Foraging in England and Wales is not illegal as long as what is collected is not intended for commercial use. However please remember that most of the North York Moors is privately owned and you’d need permission from the landowner to range over private land.
Picking mushrooms won’t necessarily damage the fungi but the more that are picked the less chance the fungi has of reproducing.
For more on fascinating fungi – have a look at The British Mycological Society and the Fungus Conservation Trust websites. Local Naturalist Societies are often great sources of local knowledge.
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