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  • Simon Moore

getting to know more about fungi

At our October meeting, Titchfield Gardeners’ Club were treated to a most informative and interesting talk about Fungi given by Simon Moore MIScT, FLS, RScI, ACR. Simon was previously Conservator of Natural Sciences for Hampshire County Council before retiring from HCC and working as a freelance conservator.

There were some very clear messages that came out of the talk: loudest of all was ‘don’t eat fungi unless you’re absolutely sure you can identify them and know that they’re safe to eat’!

Secondly, fungi have impossibly difficult names assigned to them (which has led to many having a common name). Although Simon’s presentation contained some great images of fungi and was presented in a clear and humorous way, it’s unlikely that any of the members that attended the talk could score many points in a quiz on the subject!

The part of the fungi that we are able to see are the flowers of the fungi. This visible part is known as the fruiting bodies or sporocarps. The part we cannot see, as it will be underground, is the mycelium. The mycelium will grow in size over time if the ground above it is not disturbed. This can lead to the fungi we see forming a ring (‘fairy ring’) as the sporocarps grow out of the mycelium.

Fungi are categorised in groups called Taxa and frequently have very long, complex names. Groups include Myxomycetes - a fruiting cup and a type of slime mould; Ascomycetes - cup or disc fungi that eject their spores (commonly known as the ‘rotters’ as they keep the forest floor clean) and Basidiomycetes - more passive fungi that let wind, rain and insects scatter their spores.

Many fungi are parasitic and will only grow on a specific body such as rotting wood or a specific type of tree or plant. Examples include the Earpick that grows only on pine cones and the Wood Hedgehog that grows only on the forest floor. We were told that the latter is very tasty!

The big question - Can they be eaten? Fungal bodies are a storehouse of chemicals, some of them toxic to humans. Symptoms caused by the toxins can range from emetic to hallucinogenic. Interestingly, different creatures react differently to the toxins in fungi: slugs can eat them with no effect at all! Simon showed us a series of images of poisonous fungi; these included the Panther Cap and the Death Cap.

Identification is important if the fungi are to be eaten or if they are to be included in a collection. The following observations can be used to assist in identifying the fungi:

• The spore and gill colour and size is essential to ID a sporocarp. This may require using a strong magnifying instrument. Brown spores are to be avoided as the fungi is likely to be poisonous and should not be eaten

• The cap morphology - this relates to the cap that holds the gills and spores in position. Shapes and texture are relevant and can range from shaggy or scaly to fibrous and mucid

• Colour - Simon showed us images of fungi that were amethyst, red, brown, white, green and yellow

• Smell - this can vary from mushroomy through aniseed, fishy, apricot and rotten brie. At times it’s possible to notice a fungi smell when walking through woods

• Taste - just a tiny touch on the tongue. Tastes can range from mild to hot and sweet to bitter

• Chemical tests - may be necessary if none of the above can identify the fungi

In the event none of the observations can identify the fungi, they are usually referred to as LBJs (little brown jobs)!

Some of the amazing images we saw were of the following: the spectacular Magpie Inkcap, the Hare Inkcap, the Yellow Stainer (very poisonous), the Devil’s Claw (used in medicine), the Chicken of the Woods (actually tastes like chicken - hence the name) and Zombie Cordyceps (turns ants into zombies).

Fungi can be spotted all year round, although most bloom in Autumn. A few bloom in the Summer and Winter and a large number in Spring. The largest collection of fungi in the country is held at Kew, but the New Forest is the best area in Hampshire to spot fungi.

As a result of the talk, many of us went away with renewed interest in fungi and determined that we will lookout for them, perhaps more than we had done in the past.

Dawne Dunton


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