Autumn fungi foray at NWT's Foxley Wood

Fungi at Roydon Common

Fungi at Roydon Common - Credit: Neal Trafankowski

As drivers of plant growth and agents of decay, we owe a great deal to fungi, says Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserves officer Robert Morgan

We live in a time where exaggeration, and the liberal use of the word literally, is commonplace in conversation, so it is with a little trepidation that I open this piece with the following statement: animal and plant life on dry land would, literally, struggle to exist without fungi.  

Many of us are familiar with their spore laden fruiting bodies in autumn, and we know them to be all kinds of peculiar shapes and colours, some are edible and others are definitely not.  

What many people may not realise is that they are ubiquitous and vital to all living things. They grow on us and in us, they occupy timber, dung, leaf litter and soil, to the extent that most plants have to form a symbiotic relationship with fungi to enable them to draw up nutrients for growth and seed germination. It has been found that trees can even communicate with each other through the hidden underground ‘root-like’ body of fungi called mycelium.  

Young girl photographing a Fly Agaric in woodland in autumn Norfolk

Young girl photographing a Fly Agaric in woodland in autumn Norfolk - Credit: David Tipling

In a rather sinister way, they drive growth because they are the Earth’s agents of decay, for without life there is no death. Unlike plants, fungi do not manufacture their own food through photosynthesis, but absorb organic matter externally with their hyphae treads. 

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The largest living organism on the plant is a fungus, unsurprisingly, it is found in America.

Initially the honey fungus provides sapling fir trees with important minerals to encourage quick strong growth, but being a parasitic fungus it becomes impatient and chooses to kill the trees once they reach a certain age. US forest rangers discovered 112 dead trees over a two kilometre area.

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This group of trees was found, through complex DNA testing, to have been killed by an individual honey fungus, its mycelium creeping through the soil over this vast area.  

Some species are specialist parasites of insects, even practicing mind control, having the ability to modify the host’s behaviour to suit spore dispersal.

Fungi are both a force for growth, and the planets recyclers; their existence ensures a constant equilibrium in the natural world. Fungi maybe waiting for us to die, but in the meantime we have managed to harness some of their powers; yeast has helped us with the brewing of beer, fermenting of wine and baking of bread, penicillin has joined us in the fight against infectious bacteria, and a steak isn’t the same without two large Portobello mushrooms.  

Autumn is a great time to search for fungi and there is a fascinating array to discover on many of Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s reserves.

Fungi at Foxley Wood

Fungi at Foxley Wood - Credit: Neal Trafankowski

A search around birch trees in NWT Foxley Wood may result in the discovery of the fly agaric, probably our most easily recognisable fungi, its redcap and white spots being the toadstool of popular culture.

Large bracket fungus appear at the base of tree stumps, and among the deep rotting leaf litter you may find one of the large bolete fungi. In the grass rides look out for a ‘slippery jack’ or a giant white puffball. With wonderful names such as earthstar, jelly-ear, birds’ nest and elf-cup, they come in a mind-boggling range of weird shapes and colours.

They can be found in every habitat, and most gardens will have a surprising collection of species too, this time of year you may even find a circle of small fungi in your lawn, the famous fairy-ring of folklore.  

Fungi spotter survey 
Recording wildlife is an easy way to get involved in wildlife conservation. It is a way of helping us to monitor wildlife across the county to gain an understanding of an animal’s distribution. Your sightings can help us identify areas which are especially important for wildlife and identify species in decline or under threat. 
Each season we ask you to help Norfolk's wildlife by sending us your sightings of three iconic species. You don't have to be an expert – all you need to do is tell us when and where you spot them.  

Autumn is one of the best seasons to go in search of fungi and this season we would love you to share your sightings of three fungi in particular with us: giant puffball, hoof fungus and the snowy waxcap. 

Giant Puffball 

Giant Puffball - Credit: Tony Leech

How to spot a giant puffball
If the fungus is large, white and more or less spherical it is almost certainly a giant puffball. Although much larger specimens have been recorded, most are about the size of a football. The inside is initially white but darkens to become a mass of spores which are liberated when the skin splits. 

Snowy waxcap

Snowy waxcap - Credit: Stephen Pinnington

How to spot a snowy waxcap
The cap of this waxcap, which measure 2 to 6cm in diameter, is ivory-white, but can be tinged very slightly yellow. The gills are thick and waxy and are widely spaced, and the stipe (stalk) is wavy. 

Hoof fungus

Hoof fungus - Credit: James Emerson

How to spot a hoof fungus
The hoof fungus can be found growing as a bracket on the trunks of birch trees, and occasionally on other trees. Its fruiting body is hard and shaped like a horse’s hoof, generally no more than 12 cm wide and often almost as deep. The upper surface is normally silvery grey, but can also be brown or almost black. It can be seen on living trees but eventually kills them and persists on their dead trunks. 

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