ALICE ASHCROFT: Hooray for fabulous fungi!

Porcelain fungus by Mark Heighes
Porcelain fungus by Mark Heighes

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FUNGI are the unsung heroes of autumn.

They come out in force to fuel our forests, prettify our paths and breathe life into our beloved wild places.

As the trees shed their leaves and the land braces for winter, the humble mushroom thrives.

Fungi are part of a vast and varied group of decomposers, and play a vital role in our ecosystem.

By transforming dead animals and vegetation into raw nutrients that can be absorbed by plants, fungi sustain and nurture the plant life around them.

Without fungi, England’s green and pleasant land would likely be an unpleasant shade of brown.

There really is no end to the generosity of fungi – when they’re not pumping nutrients into the soil, they’re providing a valuable food source for a host of birds and mammals, including badgers, deer, mice and squirrels.

From great gelatinous blobs on the ground to the neat toadstools on which a fairy might perch, fungi come in a spectacular range of shapes, sizes, colours and (sometimes very pungent) smells.

There are some bizarre varieties of fungi, some attractive and dainty, and some so revolting that even the most committed fungi enthusiasts retch at the sight of them.

The infamous stinkhorn, for example, omits a foul odour like rotting flesh, so strong that it can be detected from as far as 65ft away.

At the start of its life the stinkhorn resembles an egg, later developing a slimy red stalk which may grow up to eight inches high.

Its dark green cap is covered with a stinking mucous designed to attract flies.

The flies feed from the stinkhorn and dispense its spores wherever they next land – an unusual method of reproduction but effective nonetheless.

At the other end of the spectrum we have the fly agaric, the cheerful red mushroom decorated with fetching white spots.

Often portrayed in children’s fairy stories with a pixie sitting on the top, the bright red caps can measure six inches across.

It is a little known fact that the signature white spots that characterise this fungus are actually the remains of a veil which covers the immature mushroom.

Human beings have always had a fondness for fungus, and mushroom foraging has become increasingly popular in recent years.

However, it shouldn’t be done on wildlife sensitive sites, and expert guidance is essential. Fungi are an important part of the woodland ecosystem, and excessive picking can cause irreparable damage.

It’s important we remember just how important our native fungi are – in the immortal (if slightly adapted) words of Aristotle, ‘education and morels make the good man.’