Another misty morning with a slight nip in the air reminded me that this was one of my favourite times of year – fungus time. As a small child in Burley-in-Wharfedale I was fascinated by the colourful toadstools we found in our fields – yellow and red waxcaps, tangerine orange-peel fungus and, of course, the fly agaric, red with white spots – the classic toadstool of fairy tales. I was sure that if I looked round quickly enough I should see a pixie sitting on the top. I never did. Later, in the war years, we were seriously into Food for Free – edible mushrooms. My mother was disappointed when her favourite mushrooming field was ploughed up for oats in 1940. Elsewhere the creamy white buttons with neat pink gills below were harder to find but the hunt was thrilling and the booty delicious.
They seemed magical in themselves – appearing overnight, uncurling in a couple of days from a moist white fist to a cap, cream above, pinky-brown below, and, as quickly, slumping into rot. What I didn’t realise then was that the mushroom itself was merely the fruiting body for a much larger organism. Below the ground a web of filaments can stretch for kilometres – the mycelium.
Just imagine – as you stand in any woodland glade admiring the brilliant yellow of a clump of sulphur tufts or the misty purple of amethyst deceivers – below your feet thousands of hair-thin hyphae radiate outwards busily breaking down the litter of dead leaves and fallen branches to release nutrients that the trees and plants can re-use. It’s a wonderful recycling system.
Recent research reveal still more to wonder at. Apparently, the hyphae connect not just to one tree but several, sometimes ones of the same species but sometimes across species. The network moves water and nutrients around to wherever they are most needed in return for the photosynthesised sugars that will enable them to grow. Astonishingly, it seems that they carry not just supplies but also information. If a tree on the edge of the wood suffers an aphid attack, those further in get the message and start making protective toxins in advance. Scientists have called this ”the www”, the wood wide web. It’s a web without trolls, scams or fake news! I find it especially calming in these days of fierce human strife, to stand in Middleton Woods admiring the colourful fungi on show and contemplating this model of cooperation in the natural world.