Our depth of appreciation for mushrooms can be aided by a basic understanding of how fungi function. These unique organisms actually represent one of the five ‘kingdoms’ of life – the others being plants, animals, prokaryotae (rock-bottom on the evolutionary scale, these are single-celled organisms who don’t even have a nucleus to their name, e.g. bacteria and blue-green algae) and protoctista (a step up, these organisms are still unicellular, but have a nucleus, e.g. amoeba and paramecium).
So fungi, although they might seem to be some form of plant, are actually unable to photosynthesize like a plant would. Instead, a fungus acquires nutrients much like an animal; by consuming other plants and animals (even other fungi), often in a dead or well-rotted form.
It has been a great autumn so far in the kingdom of fungi, with superb, eye-catching examples displaying themselves throughout the woodland at Trelissick. The ranger team have been so impressed with the wealth of mushrooms on the estate that we have decided to share some of the best ones we have seen.
Parasol mushroom (Lepiota procera)
The parasol mushroom (Lepiota procera) is reputedly one of the very best mushrooms to eat and is commonly found in open woods or out on old, unimproved grassland or heath. The parasol takes its name from its giant, umbrella-like cap that can be as large as 25cm across when fully open! These ‘buttons’ (as the caps are called before opening) expand themselves slowly so there is a fair chance you might spot a parasol at an earlier stage – when they are known as drum sticks (see photo below).
This remarkable ‘fairy ring’ of parasol mushrooms was spotted and snapped in one of our unimproved grassland fields on the wider estate.
There is another common misconception to address on this ‘ere blog – that the toadstools we see pushing their way through forest floors and tussocks of grass are individual organisms known as mushrooms. However, like apples on an apple tree, the toadstools we come across are merely the reproductive fruit bodies of the true organism which is called mycelium. This mycelium is often referred to as a ‘net’ because, when unearthed, this mass of cells does indeed resemble a tightly knit net. Residing beneath the soil – as it does under normal circumstances – this ravenous mass feeds on nutrients; fructifying and forcing its way through the substrate as long as there is food within its grasp.
When food supply within the ground is evenly arrayed and uninterrupted, the mycelium has the opportunity to grow ever-outward. It leaves the impoverished substrate it has consumed in its wake and pushes on into more fertile territory. If the mycelium decides that the time is right to produce mushrooms, the result would be a fairy ring and a clear demonstration of the fungus’ growth outward from its initial point. The underground enterprise of the mycelium can still be observed without the fruiting of mushrooms but you will need a keen eye – there is a darker circle of grass where the mycelium has been active beneath.
Each year, a fair ring will typically broaden its radius and studies have been undertaken to understand growth rates. These have calculated that some of the mycelium must be hundreds of years old!
Beefsteak fungus (Fistulina hepatica)
This common bracket fungus was given its current scientific name in 1792 by William Withering, who was a British botanist made famous through his discovery of the active ingredient in a foxglove-derived herbal remedy that relieved sufferers of the heart condition known as dropsy. The substance he discovered is known today as digitalis.
Fistulina means ‘with little pipes or tubes’ and refers to the network of separate pipes and tubes inside the fungus. Hepatica refers to the liver-like appearance of the mature brackets.
Beefsteak fungus are a parasitic species that are most often found on living oak trees but have also been known to make a home of the occasional sweet chestnut. Their parasitism does not weaken the host timber at first but actually darkens the wood, resulting in an attractive pattern called ‘brown oak’ that is highly prized among wood turners and cabinet makers.
As the name would suggest, beefsteak fungus (also known as ox tongue fungus) bears a striking similarity to raw meat. In the past, it was often cooked and eaten as a meat substitute and is still sold on the traditional French markets to this day. The beefsteak is large and tongue-shaped, often a deep red liver colour, slimy on top and pale yellow underneath. When the fungus is young, it oozes a red substance in an almost worrying approximation of blood. Unfortunately, the flavor of this eye-catching woodland character is not as noteworthy as its appearance, although young specimens are said to be rather more palatable, and ‘are best simmered slowly to soften the flesh’ – Roger Phillips.
The ‘fruit bodies’ of the beefsteak can be spotted from August until November and we saw a cracking example down on the North Helford river, several weeks ago.
Cauliflower fungus (Sparassis crispa)
Cauliflower fungus (sometimes known as wood cauliflower) is the most common and certainly the best known mushroom of its type throughout Europe. The fruit bodies of this fungus are usually found on the roots of trees (more than likely a pine), although they can also occur on the main trunk or even a dead stump.
Cauliflower fungus is edible (indeed, it is even cultivated for culinary purposes in Japan) but must be collected when still in good, fresh condition and requires thorough washing to remove the grit and grime that hides amid its copious lobes. Within the realm of medicine, these mushrooms have been shown to boast anti-tumour properties and contain chemicals that apparently stimulate the immune system.
As is the case with most fungi, cauliflower fungus can vary greatly in size but most are between 15-20cm across and, when fresh, may weigh over 5kg. Sporadic large specimens have been reported – One, found in southeast France in 2000, was reported in the Los Angeles Times to weigh a remarkable 63.4 pounds (28.8 kg), more than double the previous record! It is reported that the finders had to use a jacket to move it to their car, and that the specimen was to be frozen for exhibit at mushroom fairs.
Fungi are an essential component of woodland ecology, helping to recycle nutrients from dead or decomposing organic material. Many animals depend upon the activity of fungi and the unique forms of habitat that their enterprise leaves as aftermath . At Trelissick, we manage all our woodland for the benefit of the trees and wildlife that call it home; we leave a great deal of standing and fallen deadwood to support and promote fungal activity. Keep your eyes peeled as you walk the estate this autumn – there are plenty of beautiful mushrooms around!
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– The National Trust ranger team, Trelissick and North Helford