I braved the rain showers and intermittent rumbles of thunder for a wander around Cefn Onn Park, in north Cardiff, last weekend. I hadn’t been there for quite a while and, after the recent rains, I had an inkling there might be some fungi around. I was right! There were actually rather a lot of crusty, brackety, slimy, smutty and generally mushroomy things to be found. (No, I’m not going to ID them – I just enjoyed seeing some fungi again.)
One way to get kids interested in lichen is to ask them to find the secret writing on woodland trees. The ‘writing’ is made by a lichen, Graphis scripta, which forms long narrow wiggledy black fruiting bodies (apothecia) on its pale smooth crust.
Not surprisingly, this lichen’s common names include script lichen, secret writing lichen, pencil-mark lichen, or hieroglyphics lichen. It is very common on smooth-barked deciduous trees, their twigs and branches, and can be found around the world – does the writing change its language depending on location, I wonder?
Lichens are very sensitive to air quality and, as they are able to accumulate and retain heavy metals, they are often used as a tool to monitor heavy metal pollutants in the atmosphere. Graphis scripta has been utilised in this way by scientists studying air pollution in the Indian city of Bangalore.
In my recent post about the fungi King Alfred’s Cakes, I mentioned that one of its other common names is cramp balls. It seems, in times past, folk believed that if you carried around these little fungi you wouldn’t suffer from night cramps. No one seems to know why they believed this!
There is, however, another reason to carry cramp balls – they make good tinder. For this reason, cramp balls are also known as coal fungus and carbon balls, though they won’t light just by holding a match to them. The balls first need to be mature and very dry, and then it’s best to slice them in half and use something like a flint and steel to produce a spark. The cramp ball will smoulder, rather than produce a flame – for that you need something like straw or small twigs to start your fire.
When you cut open the cramp ball, you will see concentric rings of grey and black inside (hence its scientific name Daldinia concentrica). These are similar to the growth rings inside a tree, though here they each represent a season of reproduction. Who would think that a small black lump of fungus could be so interesting?
Do you know the story? Alfred became king of the West Saxons on the death of his brother Aethelred in April 871, at a time when the Vikings had conquered most of what is now England. Alfred retained his kingdom of Wessex by negotiating a peace treaty with the Vikings but, in 878, their King Gudrum attacked unexpectedly, forcing Alfred and his loyal supporters to flee into the Somerset levels. There, Alfred was sheltered by the local people while he planned how to regain his kingdom. The story goes that he was asked by the woman he was staying with to keep an eye on the cakes (small loaves of bread) she was baking while she did some chores. Alfred’s mind wandered off to his rather more important worries and he allowed the cakes to burn, much to his hostess’s annoyance.
Whether or not it’s true, it’s a wonderful story and a very apt common name for Daldinia concentrica, a fungus that, when mature, looks very like a small round burnt cake. You’ll find it growing most often on hardwood trees, in particular beech and ash, throughout Britain and in many other countries. One of its other common names is cramp balls, but that’s a story for another day.
The Turkey tail (Trametes versicolour) is surely the multi-storey condominium of the fungus world. This is one of a huge range of bracket fungi and, as the name suggests, bracket fungi resemble shelves or brackets growing from the sides of tree trunks, branches and logs in forests and woodlands (or condominiums, with large balconies, ranging down the sides of cliffs, if you have an imagination like mine).
Turkey tail brackets range in size from 20 to 100mm wide and display concentric zones of colour in shades of beige, yellow, orange, brown and even blue. The common name of Turkey tail originated in North America, as these bands of colour apparently resemble the multi-hued tail of their wild turkey, and this is an extremely variable fungus so no two groupings have the same colour patterns (see slideshow below).
Not only lovely to look at, the Turkey tail is also useful medicinally. Asian people have long extolled the virtues of Turkey tail tea, and science has now proven that this fungus contains polysaccharides, derivatives of which have proven effective both in boosting the body’s immune systems in the fight against cancer and in the actual treatment of certain types of cancer.
Ten days ago I was out on a fungi foray with friends when we came across this mysterious organism. Was it a lichen? Was it a fern? Was it some other kind of plant? Although we were searching for fungi, we had no idea this was one! Consultations with experts and two return visits later, I can confirm we had found the Split Gill fungus (also known as Schizophyllum commune), one of the most widely distributed mushrooms on earth. It can be found on every continent except Antarctica (no trees).
Although its tough rubbery consistency looks totally unappetising, the Split Gill is a favourite food in many parts of the world, particularly in the tropics where the heat and humidity affect it less than more fleshy mushrooms. In the Congo it is eaten after much boiling and the addition of peanuts; in north-east India it’s a favourite ingredient in pancakes; and in Thailand, where the Split Gill is also valued for its medicinal properties, it’s used to make a hot spicy curry. If you do decide to cook up a feast, please be very careful as the Split Gill can cause disease in humans with immune deficiency issues.
Who needs 3-D printers to produce replacement human body parts when you could use a fungus instead? Not exactly a practical solution to gaining a new ear I admit but, you have to agree, this fungus is definitely the right shape, if not the ideal colour or texture.
The Jelly ear (Latin name Auricularia auricular-judae) can be rather gelatinous, hence its common name. It is a very common and easily recognisable fungus that grows on standing and fallen dead broadleaf trees, in parks and gardens and forest areas. It can reach up to 100mm across, though its shape becomes more contorted and undulating as it ages. In my native New Zealand, the Jelly ear was of considerable economic importance around the turn of the 20th century when large quantities were exported to China for food.
Jelly ears can often be found growing on the elder tree and it seems the fungus got its original common name of Judas’s Ear from the belief that Judas Iscariot hung himself from an elder tree. Over time, the epithet Judas’s Ear changed to Jew’s Ear, though in these days of political correctness, that epithet is rarely used.
Just as the Scarlet waxcaps are the jewels of the autumn meadows so the Elfcups are the jewels of the wet winter woodlands. Though they’re tiny (no more than 7cm across) and frequently half buried in moss, their eye-catching bright red colour makes them easy to spot in the damp shady places where they live on dead wood, particularly beech, hazel, hawthorn, willow and elm.
Two Elfcups can be found in Britain – the Scarlet Elfcup (Sarcoscypha austriaca) and the Ruby Elfcup (Sarcoscypha coccinea). They are so similar in outward appearance that a microscope is required to distinguish between them and, even then, it’s not easy. With a goblet-shaped cup and short stem when young, which flattens into a cup shape as they mature, it’s not difficult to see where they got the name Elfcup, nor their other common name of Fairies’ Baths.
In fact, that ‘bath’ is where the spores can be found. These fungi don’t drop their spores from gills like regular mushrooms; instead, they fire spores from structures called asci, a bit like a cannon fires cannon balls and, apparently, they make a tiny puffing sound when that happens. So, listen closely next time you see them.
Though a very pretty and quite delicate shade of apricot, the Meadow waxcap is one of the less colourful waxcaps. Yet what it lacks in vibrancy it more than makes up for in the sculptural elegance of its shape, even more so as it ages. From a straight robust stem, its gills soar skywards, like a sharp-edged version of the fluting on a Greek temple column, and the edge of its cap undulates like the rolling of the ocean waves.
Hygrocybe (‘watery head’) pratensis (‘of meadows’) is one of the larger mushrooms in the waxcap family and is also more tolerant of fertilisers than most, so is a relatively common find in Britain and Europe on mown grassland and cropped pastures where the soil tends towards the acidic. It can also be found growing in woodland areas in northern Asia, in Australia and New Zealand, and in both South and North America – in the latter, it is more commonly known as the butter meadowcap or the salmon waxy cap.
Lichen have two methods of reproduction: one is asexual – they simply expand to cover more of the surface on which they’re living; the other is sexual but, it’s not the actual lichen that is reproducing sexually, it’s the fungus the lichen is in a symbiotic relationship with.
The saucer-shaped discs in my photos are apothecia, one of the two main types of sexual fruiting bodies of the fungi in the Ascomycota group, to which the majority of lichens belong. Spores (the correct term is propagules) are dispersed from these discs by air, water or attaching themselves to minibeasties, and must then meet up with an algal partner in order to form new lichen.
The yellow- and orange-coloured lichen in these photographs are, I believe, Xanthoria parietina, which is very common on both tree bark and stonework throughout Britain, and has a particular liking for Elder trees and coastal rocks.