Fungi are everywhere: on trees and plants, in the soil, in food, drink, medicine … even on our bodies!

They do not contain chlorophyll, so are neither plant nor animal but are classed as a separate kingdom. With no chlorophyll they cannot make their own food, so take their nutrition from their surroundings. This quality makes them instrumental in nature’s decomposition and recycling processes, and has resulted in the evolution of a remarkable and mutually beneficial relationship with trees and other plants.

Fungi exist as thread-like structures called ‘hyphae’ which are too small to be seen. These hyphae grow and mesh together, forming a thread or mat called ‘mycelium’ that is visible to the naked eye. Mycelia often grow underground but can also thrive in other places such as rotting tree trunks. Mycelia are generally white and look like the soft strands of a cotton wall ball. You can sometimes see mycelia if you look closely at healthy soil or well-rotted compost.

Mycelia are of vital importance to soil. As they spread, enzymes are released from the hyphae which break down adjacent organic material and enable the fungus to absorb the resulting nutrients. This is a major contribution to the recycling process. By breaking down organic matter, mycelium helps create new and fertile soil. Mycelia in the soil also help to remove toxins, help plants to absorb nutrients and provide food for insects and invertebrates. Research has shown that without fungi, plants grow far less well – its presence is really crucial to sustaining life!

Fly agaric fungi on the forest floor surrounded by autumn leaves

Some fungi can be harmful to people through poisoning or infections and some can damage plants, but overall they have a crucial and beneficial effect on the environment.

Many trees will not grow well, if at all, without their partner fungus. Certain trees have a symbiotic relationship with particular fungi species which is mutually beneficial for both. Hyphae from mycorrhizal fungi grow around, and in some cases, penetrate the fine roots of trees and are able to transfer nutrients and water to and from them. In return, the fungi can take about 20 per cent of the sugars produced by the tree. This relationship between fungi and trees can help with identification.

The mushrooms that we associate with the word ‘fungus’ are actually just a small part of the whole fungus – they are the fruiting bodies - a bit like an apple being a small part of a tree. There are many different shapes and sizes of fruiting bodies as well as the traditional mushroom, and while some are edible, many are poisonous, so you need to be confident about your ID skills before you get the cooking pot out!

Fungi grow all year round but are most plentiful from September to November. If you’re heading out on an autumn or winter walk in the Forest, keep your eyes open for wild fungi growing in fields, on the forest floor and on tree bark. Here are a few species you might encounter while exploring:

Common puffball: Widespread in woodlands and on pastures, this creamy white, pear-shaped fungus is covered in tiny spines which fall off as it matures. As it ages, the fungus turns brown and a small opening is revealed on the top, from which the spores are released when the fungus is touched.

Fly agaric: The quintessential mushroom with a red cap speckled with white scales. Usually found under birch in late summer or early autumn, but occasionally with pine or spruce. Despite its attractive appearance, it is a dangerously poisonous mushroom.

Beefsteak fungus: This aptly-named fungus resembles a hunk of raw meat and can be found growing on the bark of oak trees. Although edible, it is reportedly rather bitter in flavour. Moist and sticky to the touch, this fungus can cause rot in oak so is not always a welcome guest!

Shaggy Inkcap: Found in late summer and autumn in lawns, pastures and grassy roadside verges. The cap is elongated and covered in white shaggy scales. As it matures, the edge of the cap curls up, dripping a black inky liquid.

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