What are fungi?
Contrary to popular belief fungi are NOT plants! Yes, they grow in the ground, they have roots, a stem and a flower head but they are not plants. Fungi have a place of their own in nature classification, they are their own kingdom.
Actually fungi do not grow in the ground, some do but most grow in decaying wood, leaves and other vegetable matter. They do not have roots, the fibres you see if you pull one up are the mycelium (more on this below), the stem is called a stipe and the flower head is known as a cap.
Remember that whilst many fungi have the familiar toadstool shape they also come in many other forms as well.
What is the mycelium?
What you generally see is not really the fungus itself. What you see is the fruiting body; the fungus itself is often unseen living within its host. This active part of the organism is known as the mycelium, fungi belong to the order mycelia, and people who study fungi are mycologists.
The mycelium is generally thin and fibrous. It is present all year round working at dissolving or decaying its host and returning it to soil. Fungi play a vital role in the natural processes of recycling dead matter.
Most fungi are not parasitic and only attack and work on matter that is already dying. Some are parasitic and can cause major problems to forestry and farming but that is not the case for the majority of species.
Species of fungi tend to have a preferred host and therefore you will find that species in a habitat that supports its host. Some, such as the Birch Polypore, will only ever be found on a specific host but others are more catholic and may appear on a variety of host types. Many prefer broad-leaved woodland, other coniferous woodland, whereas other are found on pasture and yet others on bare ground. Some like acid soils and occur on heath, others require alkaline conditions and appear on chalk and limestone. If you want to identify a fungus then one of the primary questions to consider is what is it growing on.
What about toadstools?
A toadstool is the popular name for the most common type of fruiting bodies of fungi; those with a stipe and a cap. A mushroom is, again, not a specific scientific term but a general name for some edible species.
I suppose about 60% or so of fungi have a fruiting body in the form of a toadstool but there are other types, notably brackets. You also find balls, stars, jellies, crusts and corals as well as some really bizarre ones.
As a simple rule, toadstools tend to appear from the ground (often from buried dead branches or twigs, or perhaps leaf litter) whereas brackets tend to appear on trunks of trees that are still standing or have fallen.
The role of the fruiting body is to disperse spores to spread the fungus and so prolong its life. The ‘fruits’ can appear any time in some species but most commonly, fruiting bodies appear in the autumn and so October and November are the best time to go looking for them.
In toadstools and brackets the spores are released from either gills on the underside of the cap or from a spongy ‘porous’ underside. Establishing which is also important in identification. Remember, too, that toadstool caps can also be convex, flat or concave (funnel shaped).
How do I identify fungi?
There is a simple answer to this question: with difficulty!
In many cases a detailed examination is required that encompasses a physical examination as well as considering smell and taste and even the colour and shape of spores! You will see many fungi that you will never name.
As soon as a fruiting body appears it starts to degenerate. It has a very short life span, in some cases as little as a day! They are also a key source of food for many insects and other invertebrates and they soon start to be eaten away. They are also prone to weather damage.
I am against picking fungi fruits for two reasons:
1. They are a vital part of the life cycle of the fungus and should be left to fulfil that role. In some areas fungi are becoming rare because they are over picked. There are plenty of farmed mushrooms available in the shops, thick to those!
2. Some species are fatally poisonous. Even handling some species without actually eating them can result in severe liver disease and even death. The Death Cap is so named for good reason! Unless you know exactly what you are doing, leave them alone to do the task they have.
Just to add to the difficulties, species are in fruit and so identifiable for a short period each year, you almost have to start again each year! Until recently very few had common names, just somewhat complex latin or scientific names and they can be difficult to remember and work with. Recently a lot of work has gone in to developing a set of common English names to make them more accessible to casual observers but unless you have a good, modern field guide these names will be missing.
So why bother?
A good question! Fungi are fascinating and worthy of attention and, with a bit of effort, it is possible to get familiar with, say, 100 or so species and to recognise and name them. Look at fungi, understand their role, marvel at their variety but do not be too despondent if you can’t name them all.