Foraging for fungi

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With wildlife photographer, Niall Bell

As an environmental advocate, I’m wild about nature and wanted to share something that interests me personally, but also what I think more people should have an understanding of – fungi.

Firstly, I need to clarify what I mean when I say fungi. Fungi make up an entire kingdom of organisms and come in all shapes, sizes and types. One of those types are mushrooms but not all fungi grow mushrooms. I know, I was surprised at first too. Of the 43,000 described species, only about 15,000 of them grow mushrooms.

But for reference, when I say fungi in this article, I actually mean any fungi that grow mushrooms.

What’s fun about fungi foraging?

Going out into the woods looking for mushrooms can seem a bit boring or strange to some, but it really isn’t. I sometimes find looking for wildlife, particularly animals, frustrating; they can be difficult to find. But fungi are literally everywhere and for that reason it’s really easy to find something cool, making fungi hunting a rewarding way to get out into nature.

Where to look:

Fungi grow pretty much everywhere: forests, fields, houses, rivers, deserts and even the Greenland ice-sheet.

The best place I have found to find fungi is in woodlands a day or so after rain. Different types of woodland host different species, so just head to your nearest woods and start looking. Pine woodland is particularly good.

What to look for:

Here are some of the more common species you may find while out exploring.

Chicken of the Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus)

Chicken of the Woods

This is a favourite amongst mushroom foragers. It has thick fleshy caps that grow in stacks, usually from the sides of trees. They get their name from their likeness to fried chicken.

Species in the Laetiporus genus tend to be bright orange/yellow when young which makes them really easy to spot. Look on hardwood trees or stumps between August to October. This species of fungi is known as a ‘Brown Rot’ fungus because it tends to break down the white cellulose in the wood leaving behind the brown lignin.

Interesting Fact: Chicken of the Woods is a valuable food source for lots of wildlife including deer and the Hairy Fungus Beetle.

The Common Puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum)

Common Puffball

A a small but mighty fungus, this fungus gets its name from the spore dispersal method. When a bird, hiker, raindrop or insect exert a force on the puffballs cap, such as a nudge or kick, millions of spores are ejected from the top in a puff. This can be seen in action in the photo.

Puffballs can be found July to November by looking out for clumps of white club-like fungi, usually on deadwood. The white surface is often dotted with little spikes or warts. Mature puffballs are brown with a small hole on top. If you see one give it a poke – just be careful not to inhale many spores as it can cause lung irritation.

Interesting Fact: In traditional medicine, the spores of Puffballs were used to reduce bleeding when dressing wounds.

Mica Caps (Coprinellus micaceus)

Mica Caps

Mica Caps are a small sprawling mushroom that can be found anytime in spring/summer and even sometimes in winter. They grow from moist deadwood in dense clusters and can completely cover the logs they grow on. As a saprobic fungus, they ‘eat’ dead decomposing stuff, normally wood. This makes them one of nature’s recyclers, putting nutrients that are locked up in the wood back into the soil for other plants to use.

They are a yellowish-brown colour with thin lines running from the top to the bottom of the cap. The cap is usually fringed with a darker colour near the bottom.

Interesting Fact: As the mushroom matures, its protective veil breaks up into tiny beads that are highly reflective. This gives it another common name, the glistening ink cap.

The Sickener (Russual emetica)

The Sickener

As its name implies, this toxic fungus is not edible. If the red colour didn’t give it away, the hot peppery taste and sickening side effects definitely would. Setting aside its nastiness, the Sickener is one of the most attractive and amazing woodland species, with its bright red cap and pure white gills and stem – it’s definitely worth looking out for.

This species can be found under conifer trees on moist, mossy ground from August to October. As a mycorhizal fungi, it forms a symbiotic (benefits both organisms) relationship with nearby plants, especially pine trees.

Interesting Fact: Due to its evolutionary history, the Sickener’s cells make it brittle and breakable when touched. These fungi are collectively known as Brittlegills.

Fairy Ink Caps (Coprinellus disseminatus)

Fairy Ink Caps

Fairy Ink Caps are a small, delicate mushroom that like to grow in moist habitats from late summer to November. They get their Latin name from their tendency to crumble when aging or touched.

What’s truly remarkable about the Fairy Ink Cap is its ability to grow in such vast numbers. It’s not unusual to see hundreds at once. This gives rise to their other common name, the Trooping Crumble-cap.

Interesting Fact: Young Fairy Ink Caps start off a stunning white colour. They quickly change to a darker colour so keep an eye out for fresh specimens.

There are some rather diverse fungi that you can find quite easily in the local area. Go out, look under logs, on trees, around deadwood and in fields. If you find anything, take a photo. When you get home have a look on the internet to see if you can identify them. This is all part of the fun.

And finally…

NEVER EAT WILD MUSHROOMS UNLESS PREPARED BY AN EXPERT.

Niall Bell is a Doncaster-based wildlife photographer. Find more of his work online or see his Instagram @naturewithniall