It started well before the end of September. Our neighbour brought a fine chestnut brown fungus to show us. Several of these were growing on his front lawn. It was chunky with a sturdy whitish-brown stem and the underside – rather ageing and brown by now – was spongy. It was a bolete but difficult to identify further. Had it been fresh and the spongy pores been yellow bruising to blue-green when pressed, we should have known for sure it was a bay bolete. The Fungus Season had begun!
Fungi are difficult to specify beyond a few main groups. Boletes release their spores from pores in the spongy underside. Most mushrooms, of which the edible field mushroom is the most familiar, have pleated undersides or gills in which the spores ripen, and there are many varieties – perhaps my favourite being the fly agaric, the archetypal toadstool with its red cap spotted with white. As a child I always thought if only I could turn round quickly enough I should see the storybook pixie seated on his stool! Even this apparently unmistakable fungus can confuse – it pushes first through the ground like a red egg – and only later opens to its characteristic umbrella form.
Many fungi are not umbrella shaped at all. The maroon jelly ear can be found on elderberry bushes at most times of the year and really does resemble a human ear. The many species of bracket fungus – forming solid, long-lasting shelves on tree trunks, are common in our woodland. Some of these are polished and specially shaped like the attractively named Dryad’s saddle, some quite meaty – like the beefsteak fungus which, I’m told, is delicious if you gather it young – and some are easy to spot like the vivid yellow Chicken-of-the-woods.
The other major group comprises puffballs and earth stars that hold their spores inside their rounded bodies. The common puffball has often misled me in my ardent mushroom gathering days as its clean white dome looks just like a newly-sprung button mushroom. It ages, shrivels a bit and releases thousands of brown spores – a bit like cocoa-powder. A friend’s brother cherishes a secret site for giant puffballs and has recently been feasting on slices of these fried in butter. They can grow huge: one was once mistaken for a sheep. Just imagine how many spores it must release into the wind!
If you want to learn more about fascinating fungi – sign up for one of the many Fungus Forays run at this time of the year. Ours is on 14th October. See the WNS website for details.