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Don't forget the fungi

Last modified: 12 December 2014

Chicken of the woods fungus

Chicken of the Woods

Image: Niall Benvie

The suggestion of a fungi hunt can sometimes crumple faces in horror. Let me take this opportunity to defend the poor, humble mushroom and convince you how awesome they really are.

Not a plant, or even an animal, fungi is a vast family all of its own; often beautiful and sometimes disgusting, but always fascinating. It’s everywhere, from our medicines to the ground beneath our feet and without it life would grind to a halt.

Although you can find fungi all year, it’s when autumn arrives and the ground turns to leafy mulch that mushrooms and toadstools abound. They are the fruit of larger organisms which grow beneath the ground and through dead wood. There the sprawling strands of a fungus break down matter and return nutrients to the ground. The fruit we see is there to spread the spores far and wide to produce more lovely fungi.

These are our top 5 to look out for:

·        Birch polypore

Also known as the ‘razor strop fungus’, strips used to be attached to a wooden board and used by barbers to finish the edge on their razors. It’s also naturally antiseptic and antibacterial so it can be used as a plaster. Find it on birch trees where it can last for up to a year.

·        Shaggy Inkcap

A strange fungus nicknamed ‘lawyers wig’, it emerges from the ground in perfect white spikes before the bottom edges turn out into a bell shape and it turns black. Look out for it in grassy areas and on path edges.

·        Fly agaric

The poster boy of the fungi world, inspect this iconic toadstool closely and you might find some fairy footprints around the base. Young fly agaric are small and round but unfurl as they mature until they’re almost completely flat. Keep a constant eye out for newly emerging bursts of red but please don’t touch as these mushrooms are poisonous.

·        Scarlet elf cup

A beautiful, bright fungus which continues the fairytale theme, look out for scarlet elf cup emerging in late winter and early spring, it’s often found on decaying wood and damp parts of the forest floor. 

·        Fairy rings

A rich and varied history of folklore is attached to fairy rings, which we now know are arcs and circles of mushrooms formed naturally in grass and woodland settings.  Some traditions warn they are dangerous places to venture, while others tell us they are good fortune. Keep an eye out for dark rings in the grass, because even when they aren’t in fruit, these fungi show where they are growing beneath the ground.

Of course one of the greatest things about fungi is that some of them are edible. However, many of them are poisonous, so please only eat what you are positive is safe, and ideally with an expert on hand. The RSPB holds many events and activities looking at fungi – keep an eye on our events pages for the latest details.

Now you know a bit more, why not go out and see what you can find?  Have fun(gi)! By Sally Granger

How you can help

RSPB reserves are great places for a day out

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