This week we had the first proper rain of the year and what a difference it has made. The last time we had any fungi in the woods was back in February. This is what I found today.
Wood Ears, Auricularia auricula-judae, was the most abundant. They react quickly to heavy rain. Wood Ears are a very good edible mushroom with a subtle peppery taste that adds a savouriness to dishes and a crunchy texture like slice of cucumber. They are popular in Chinese cuisine as they are good for the digestion and act as a probiotic in the gut. They are most common on old Elder bushes, Sambucus nigra.but they were also growing on Holly, Ilex europea, which is a first for meand on Ash, Fraxinus excelsior.On the same Ash tree, on the other side of the trunk, was some White Brain, Exidia thuretiana.I found a close relative of the Wood Ears, Tripe Fungus, Auricular mesenterica, growing on a dead Alder trunk, Alnus glutinosus. This is also a good edible though not as common as the Wood Ears but can be used in the same sort of dishes.On a fallen Oak branch, Quercus rober, was a fresh flush of Many-zoned Polypore, Coriolus versicolor, known as Turkey Tails in North America. This is a medicinal mushroom. A number of drugs used in cancer treatment are made from extracts of this mushroom. In North America the native Americans used fresh Turkey Tails as a chewing gum.One of the reasons I went out today was to see how this Chicken of the Woods had developed. Five days ago it looked like this.With the rain over the last few days, it has turned into this.Chicken of the Woods, Laetiporus sulphureus, is another popular edible mushroom. It has a very meaty texture like succulent chicken breast with a lemony flavour. It can be used in any recipe as a substitute for chicken breast.
On an Elder were the small orangey dots of Coral Spot Fungus, Nectria peziza. Walking through the woods the distinct smell of rotting flesh brought this Stinkhorn, Phallus impudicus, to my attention. This mushroom imitates this smell to attract houseflies and bluebottles which it uses to disperse it’s spores in the same way as plants use insects to disperse pollen.Finally I returned to the tree where I had seen the slime mould back in February, which looked like this then as it munched it’s way through some Toothed Crust.
Today, four months later the same slime mould has completely devoured the Toothed Crust, Basidioradulum radula, and has started to sporulate and looks like this.It is most likely a Badhamia species with it’s fruit bodies hanging like bunches of grapes.This is what is left of the Toothed Crust.I didn’t expect to see this slime mould still developing on the same oak branch after all this time.
Found myself in Wiltshire last weekend at the perfect time to see the fritillaries at this nationally important nature reserve. This meadow has 80% of the UK’s population of snakes head fritillaries. I have known about this meadow for a long time but this is the first time I have been to visit. It is quite a spectacle. Obviously the main attraction are the fritillaries.
Because this site has always been managed as a traditional hay meadow there are lots of other plants amongst the fritillaries that are no longer common in the rest of the UK. I was particularly interested in the number of different plants looking like they were in the Apiaceae family (carrot family) Among the true Apiaceae there were the familiar Cow Parsley and Common Hogweed. The deadly poisonous Hemlock Water Dropwort looking remarkably like it’s relative Wild Celery.
With out a distinct smell, and definitely no celery smell this was not Wild Celery. The Hemlock Water Dropwort can be seen along the banks or the River Churn and River Thames that define the boundaries of the meadow.
Also on the banks of the Thames were a few plants of Wild Angelica.
Another member of the Apiaceae that I found there was, I suspect, Pepper Saxifrage. This plant looks very like wild carrot but is hairless. The field guides seem to pay little attention to the shape of the leaves of this family of plants and it is a long way from flowering so difficult to reach a conclusive identification.
There were a number of plants that, before they flower, look like members of the carrot family. One is Meadow Rue which forms large dark green patches across the meadow.
The pinnate leaf and bract wrapping round the stem at the base of the leaf stalk are typical carrot family features also found in the rue family. These feature are also found in the buttercup family and there was plenty of meadow buttercups doing carrot impressions before they flowered. The palmate divided leaves give it away as a buttercup.
Lastly there was both Meadowsweet along the banks of the river
and the closely related Dropwort after which the Water Dropworts are named.
Both Meadowsweet and Dropwort are in the Rose Family and have sweet smelling flowers used in the past to flavour drinks. The name Meadowsweet is actually a corruption of Mead Sweet and it was used to flavour mead. These two plants are also a rich source of salicylic acid and were the original source for the drug Aspirin which gives the leaves a bitter taste.
We are at the peak of the Saint George’s Mushroom season here in Essex. We have had perfect weather for them this year with lots of April showers and in the last week or so warm sunny days too. But take a look at these two baskets of mushrooms.
The basket on the left has the mushrooms I foraged from about 40 Saint George’s Mushroom rings on the village green while the basket on the right was foraged from 2 small rings on the verge of a quiet lane a mile away. The 2 rings on the verge have produced over 5 times as many mushrooms as the entire village green!
What could possibly be the reason for this I hear you cry? Are there hordes of immigrants scouring our English village greens and removing every mushroom? Are the villagers keen wild mushroom foragers? No! There are no mushrooms on the village green because they have been mown down. The green was mown 10 days before Saint George’s day which was luckily just before the mushrooms started into growth. There were just under a kilo of mushrooms big enough to pick for Saint George’s Day and 2.5 kilo a week later. The second cut was eight days ago on the 3rd May and the battered 200g in the basket is all that has grown since. The 2 rings in the lane had one mushroom for Saint George’s Day and 250g the week after. Today there was 1.1 kilos in the lane. The village green should have produced at least 11 kilos this week, instead of 200g, as the conditions have been perfect for them. There won’t be any mushrooms on the green next week either as the mower was beginning it’s next cut as I left this morning. The verge in the lane has not been cut yet but with the cow parsley coming into flower it won’t be long before the mowers come out along the roads and lanes to make it safe for the poor defenceless motorists in their armour plated boxes.
The reason we don’t see masses of mushrooms popping up in fields and greens is we are obsessed with tidiness. Wild flowers and mushrooms are not given a chance if they dare to grow higher than an couple of centimetres. The relentless whirring blades of the mower slice them into a thousand pieces and scatter them to the four winds. The man/woman operating the mower is oblivious to the destruction they are causing so intent are they on getting the perfect cut. And people consent to this destruction and even complain when it is not done. It looks untidy, it spoils the view, it a danger to motoring.
Mowing is nothing less than habitat destruction. Every time a mower cuts a patch of grass it is creating a sudden change in the microclimate. Allowing the sun and the wind to suck moisture from the soil. Contrary to popular belief mushrooms don’t pop up over night. The whole process takes at least a week. Mushroom formation is triggered by subtle changes in a range of environmental factors: humidity, light, oxygen, temperature. When the grass is cut all of these factors change instantly and the mushrooms are unable to react fast enough. If they are still very small they shrivel and die from lack of moisture. If they are too big they are ripped from the ground and devoured by the mower. With mowers cutting every fortnight or every week in Summer the mushrooms don’t stand a chance. (Did I mention that cutting grass stimulates it to grow more so it needs more mowing).
Here are a few views from my office today. You know it’s spring when you see wild flowers everywhere. It’s when the woods come alive. Everyone knows bluebells, with their vibrant colour and heady scent.