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July Fungi Focus – Beefsteak Fungus

July Fungi Focus – Beefsteak Fungus

by Jasper Sharp, 18 July, 2022, 1 comments

Beefsteak Fungus. The very name seems to suggest a choice edible, something meaty, tasty and substantial. The Latin name, Fistulina hepatica, sounds more like a medical condition. The hepatica part means ‘liver’, for this is what the fruiting bodies look like: dark reddish-brown, wedge- or tongue-shaped and weeping large droplets of a crimson exudate that looks much like blood. Slice the relatively soft flesh of this large bracket and it has the marbled appearance of a steak. I think all but the most ardent forager would probably concur that the Beefsteak Fungus doesn’t taste remotely as good as it looks. Firm and juicy turns to wet and floppy in the pan, but if that isn’t enough of a deterrent, then the overpowering sour acetic taste will be. Like many woodland fungi, this species is best left where found to fulfil its primary function of distributing spores and providing food for more appreciative woodland denizens. The Beefsteak Fungus should be appearing in woodlands from any time now until mid-Autumn and is pretty easy to spot. Compared with other brackets, it is soft and pliable. It reaches about 30cm in diameter and 5cm in thickness and a thick stem can often be seen attaching it to its host. Its upper side ranges from flesh-pink when young to deep chestnut red-brown when mature. However, it is the yellowish underside, which also bleeds when cut, that provides the real clincher for identification. Rather than a surface pitted with pores, the Beefsteak Fungus has a thin layer of densely grouped tubes that hang down separately from one another rather than be embedded in the pore layer itself – this is where Fistulina (“little tubes”) part of the name comes from. These characteristics make it a unique fungus in Europe, where it is the only species in the Fistulinaceae family. You certainly won’t need a microscope to look at spores or suchlike to identify it, you’ll be relieved to hear. While it can be found on related trees like chestnut, the Beefsteak grows primarily on oak, usually fairly low down the trunk, and occasionally on stumps. More specifically, this brown-rotter favours older oaks, and with the UK boasting some 120 million oaks, with our 49,000 veteran or ancient oaks totalling more than all other European countries combined, we should feel particularly blessed. While the Beefsteak Fungus is a fairly common site in Britain, in several other countries it is considered rare. It is on the red list of legally protected species in Poland, to name one but one such example. There’s a potential problem even here in the UK, however. According to the Woodland Trust, Oaks can be considered “veteran” or “notable” when they reach the age of 150 years. After reaching 400 years, they are classed as ancient, and some can go on to live up to 1000 years. It is not just tree-huggers who should be up in arms by such incidents as the recent felling by Peterborough Council of a 600-year-old oak to avoid a potential insurance claim involving two houses on an estate built around the tree just 30 years before.  Ancient oaks support an astonishing biodiversity; not just lichens, mosses and a rich array of insects and other invertebrates, but birds, mammals and of course, fungi. According to the Standing Oak Tree Fungus Survey, of which more later, oaks support over 2,300 species (this is not including all the fungi and other microbes), of which 320 are endemic to oak and a further 229 only rarely found on any other trees. More can be read on oak biodiversity on the sites of the Woodland Trust, The Ancient Oaks of England and ActionOak. Ancient oaks support species that younger oaks can’t, and so Peterborough council’s announcement it would plant 100 new trees to mitigate the environmental impact caused by its destruction should be seen as the greenwash that it is. One of our big problems in the United Kingdom is that over the past century or so, we have been rather remiss in our protection of oaks, and come the inevitable loss of our oldest species, we are missing the new generations to replace them and therefore hosts for the numerous animal, plant and fungi species that depend upon them. In relation to fungi, the Beefsteak Fungus is safe for the moment, but there’s one other species in the UK that is considerably more at risk. The Oak Polypore (Buglossoporus quercinus), a large bracket found on ancient oaks in openly grown settings, is one of only four species on the Red List of legally protected species in UK.  It is believed to be present in “350 localities in Europe (incl. suspected unrecorded localities).” It is more prevalent here than the rest of Europe however, due to such relatively safe enclaves as the Windsor Crown Estate. But host and habitat lost are the main threats to the very rare fungus which, for such sad but inevitable reasons, I have been unable to find and photograph. This brings me back to the Standing Oak Tree Fungus Survey, spearheaded by Richard Wright as part of a PhD research project under the Action Oak initiative aimed at mapping the fungal diversity of Britain’s oaks of and assessing “their interactions, and their effects on the life of tree”, depending on such factors as their age and location. The project started in 2020 and is intended to run until 2023. There’s obviously a huge amount of data that needs collecting and crunching through for this, and this is where you, the Citizen Scientist, can play a role. The project openly encourages the involvement of “anyone who can tell a chicken-of-the-woods from a beefsteak” (easy – one is yellow; the other is red!), by reporting their finds on an app that can be downloaded from the project’s website here. There’s also the dedicated Standing Oak Tree Fungus Survey Facebook group that can be joined for more details and discussion. [caption id="attachment_38542" align="aligncenter" width="675"] Caption: Chicken or beef? The sulphur yellow layered brackets of the Chicken-of-the-Woods.[/caption] I emphasised the importance of more people taking an active interest in fungi in my post earlier this year.  : ‘Mycophilia and Recording the Fungal Diversity of the United Kingdom’.  Mycology can be a daunting and difficult subject, but this project provides a great starting point for those who wish to dig deeper. Englands oaks need you!
June Fungi Focus – Ash Dieback, Spring Pins and other Discomycetes

June Fungi Focus – Ash Dieback, Spring Pins and other Discomycetes

by Jasper Sharp, 6 June, 2022, 0 comments

June is the month when I’ve tended to find the first primary evidence of Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, the ascomycetes fungus responsible for the dreaded Ash Dieback. By this I mean that the while the presence of the disease is manifest all year round in terms of the sight of dead or dying ash trees, this is the time when one can first see the tiny ascocarp fruiting bodies responsible for spreading the spores. Hunt around in the debris at the base of an afflicted tree, and one can find these miniscule cream-coloured goblet-shaped ascocarps on the blackened fallen petioles and rachises of the previous year’s growth; the stems and stalks that make up the recognisable ‘pinnate’ leaf form of this species, with the blackening itself symptomatic of the presence of this destructive pathogen. The timing is interesting in that, with ash one of the last trees in our wooded environments to come into leaf, these ascocarps first begin to appear at a time when all good healthy trees should be in full leaf, shooting their spores (more specifically ‘ascospores’) into the air where they infect their host, unimpeded by the early plants of the woodland understory such as anemones, arums and bluebells that have by now died back for another year. The infection becomes evident on the tree itself with the blackening and wilting of leaves and shoots from July to September (Chalara fraxinea was the name for this separate asexual stage, and hence, before the link to the H. fraxineus was discovered, the name Chalara Ash Dieback took hold). [caption id="attachment_38272" align="aligncenter" width="675"] The unwelcome site of Hymenoscyphus fraxineus ascocarps growing from blackened twigs beneath ash trees.[/caption] I covered Ash Dieback in some detail a few ago, but for this months Fungi Focus, I want to discuss a few small lookalike species – the term discomycetes is used to describe the cup-shaped ascomycetes – that shouldn’t be such cause for alarm. The ascomycetes can be a horrible group when it comes to identification, with at least double the amount of species worldwide than the other major phylum of fungi, the basidiomycetes, and a scant few of them baring common names. Going by visible features alone, it is difficult enough to pinpoint down to genus level, yet alone species, with close microscopic scrutiny necessary to go any further. A case in point is Hymenoscyphus albidus, whose ascocarps look identical to H. fraxineus to the naked eye: Both grow exclusively on ash and both have the same blackening effect on the fallen petioles on which they grow. It is for this reason that H. fraxineus has also gone under the synonym H. pseudoalbinus. The only difference between this native fungus and the invasive interloper believed to have arrived from Asia, aside from the fact that it doesn’t kill its host, is that H. albidus does not possess hook-like “Croziers” at the base of its asci (where the spores are produced) – something that can only be ascertained microscopically.  [caption id="attachment_38273" align="aligncenter" width="675"] The related and near identical looking Hymenoscyphus scutula, fruiting on a dead bramble stem.[/caption] I don’t wish to blind the reader with science here, but one take home point is that if you do find tiny nail-shaped ascocarps on blackened fraxineus (ash) debris, it doesn’t necessarily spell doom for your local ash population – it might well be this harmless indigenous species. Another thing to consider is that the Ash Dieback fungus might not only be laying waste to our native ash population, but also outcompeting H. albidus in the process, thus another species falls under threat, albeit a miniscule fungi that is not quite so cherished as our ash trees and indeed is barely noticed by most of us. How many people are scouring the UK to estimate the ratio of H. albidus to H. fraxineus at the moment? Probably less than a handful, if any, I’d say. There are 155 species in the Hymenoscyphus genus according to Wikipedia, but there are probably many many more. Even the dozen or so listed in Peter Thompson’s Ascomycetes in Colour (2013) and Læssøe and Petersen’s Fungi of Temperate Europe (2019) look so similar as to make the eyes water. Some can be identified by their host – they might grow on leaves of specific plants, dead stems of herbaceous plants, or nuts and acorns – although never with total certainty. For example, I found similar tiny cream ascocarps growing on a dead blackberry stem. They seemed to fit the description of Hymenoscyphus scutula. The spores matched too, but even then, I couldn’t be 100% sure.  [caption id="attachment_38274" align="aligncenter" width="675"] These yellow discomycetes growing on a chestnut husk are probable Hymenoscyphus serotinus, although one can never be certain without checking under the microscope[/caption] Some are slightly more notable in the colour department. The small yellow cups I found growing on a chestnut husk could have been H. seritonus, or maybe H. monticola, or maybe something different entirely. I wasn’t going to bash my brains out trying to get any further in such cases, and nor should you. This is very very advanced specialist stuff. (For the record, as well as looking at spore shapes and sizes, the serious “ascomycetologist” would look at features such as the lengths of the asci and the ‘paraphyses’, the sterile hair-like filaments also contained as support structures within the fruit bodies). Anyway, lets move on to simpler things, namely two species of discomycetes that look superficially rather similar to the Ash Dieback fungi but are much easier to distinguish. These are Spring Pins (Cudoniella clavus) and Oak Pins (Cudoniella acicularis). One difference that can be noted with these and the Hymenoscyphus species is that the hymenium, the upward facing fertile surface in which the asci are embedded and release their spores from, is convex than concave – more dome-shaped than cup-shaped, although sometimes flatter. The appearance of both of these are of little nails or pins, as spelled out in the ‘clavus’ (for ‘nail’) part of the Latin name for Spring Pins. [caption id="attachment_38275" align="aligncenter" width="675"] Spring Pins (Cudoniella clavus), can be found growing twigs and other deciduous litter in freshwater environments..[/caption] Spring Pins, as the name suggests, appear from April to July, and usually in great abundance. They are not limited to ash trees anyway, but are found on any deciduous litter and dead wood in wet habitats; the ones depicted here were growing on fallen twigs in a ditch, a typical environment as they often appear in clean still or flowing freshwater habitats.  They are creamy white to yellowish and average around 4mm in diameter, getting up to 8mm according to Thompson, so do appear significantly larger than H. fraxineus. They are longer stemmed too, on average, and have a slightly gelatinous although not quite translucent appearance. This combination of size, shape and habitat should make this relatively widespread fungus not too challenging to identify. [caption id="attachment_38276" align="aligncenter" width="675"] Long-stemmed, gelatinous, with dome-shaped caps and slightly larger in size, Spring Pins are easy to distinguish from Hymenoscyphus species.[/caption] Oak Pins are also common. These are much smaller, with the markedly dome-shaped caps just 1-4mm in diameter, the margins slightly in-rolled so that from above they look like tiny gilled mushrooms such as the smallest mycena species – although a look underneath with a hand lens will clear up any doubt. These are much whiter than the other species discussed thus far, although develop black and brownish spots as they age.  One notable aspect to Oak Pins is that if one looks really closely, one can see that they are slightly hairy, particularly on the stems. But their substrate, not to mention their sheer proliferation across it, should be the real clincher for ID purposes. They almost exclusively appear on very old well-rotted oak stumps, and later in the year too – from August throughout the winter into March, although with the British climate as unpredictable as it is, quite possibly outside of these months. [caption id="attachment_38277" align="aligncenter" width="675"] Oak Pins (Cudoniella acicularis), another common find; smaller, whiter, with slightly hairy stems and discolouring with age.[/caption] June is hardly considered the best time to be out looking for fungi. These examples should show that there is still plenty about during the early Summer months, but many species are very small, very obscure and often very difficult to identify. This post, I hope should go some way to rectifying this final problem for some of them.  And if you do find what you suspect to be Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, don’t forget to report it. Happy hunting! [caption id="attachment_38278" align="aligncenter" width="675"] A proliferation of Oak Pins across a rotting stump.[/caption]

Fungi Focus : May, Campion Anther Smut 

by Jasper Sharp, 16 May, 2022, 1 comments

May Fungi Focus - Campion Anther Smut  Spring is busting out all over, a time of fresh growth and new life. The past few months have seen a succession of our native woodland flora coming into their own; first woodland anemones then bluebells and primroses and now Ramsons  (wild garlic) and arums like the majestic Lords-and-Ladies or Cuckoo Pint. Amongst all this vibrant colour, it almost seems perverse to let ones thoughts wander to fungi, in most minds associated with death and decay.  Nevertheless, there are whole swathes of species that make their homes on the living tissue of plants. The rusts, for example, are particularly conspicuous at this time of year when such early bloomers begin to die back. Many are specific to one plant, or jump between different species at different stages in their own and their host’s lifecycle. Identify the plant, and most of the time you can identify the rust. Wherever you find Alexanders, for example, you are likely to find Alexanders Rust (Puccinia smyrnii). Wood anemones play host to Tranzschelia anemones, while the orange circular blotches you can see on the leaves of Lords-and-Ladies (Arum maculatum) and Ramsons (Allium ursinum) are most likely caused by Arum Rust (Puccinia sessilis). In a previous two-part post, I’ve covered Bluebell Rust (Uromyces muscari), that usually appear just before the leaves begin to die back (part one can be read here and part two here), while I’ve also written about Blackberry Leaf Rust (Phragmidium violaceum), and Dock Leaf Rust (Puccinia phragmitis), this latter an example of a species that overwinters in a different form on a different host, in this case Common Reeds. Rusts are described as parasitic and pathogenic. For certain cash crops, host-specific rusts can cause havoc in commercial monocultures. The examples I’ve outlined above, however, might be considered opportunists whose lifecycles have evolved to fit in with their specific ecosystems. Needless to say, there are many, many species of rusts, and precious few people paying attention to them. [caption id="attachment_38169" align="aligncenter" width="675"] Beauty is in the eye of the beholder: Arum Rust on the underside of an Arum leaf.[/caption] This is even more the case of smuts. While some might argue that, for example, the circular arrangements of blisters of Arum Rust have a certain organic beauty, in the Haeckelian sense, few would make such a case for smuts. Rusts target the leaves or other greens part of plants, often manifesting themselves as their hosts die back. Smuts head straight for the reproduction organs – fruits, seeds and stamens. They are not called smuts for nothing. The name derives from the German for dirt, and indeed, they manifest themselves in thick coatings of dark brown to black spores (teliospores, to be specific, but there’s no need to go into the particular details here), transforming the parts of the plant they grow on into a dark sooty mass. Much of the attention focussed on them is on species that have commercial ramifications (again, like the rusts). Ustilago tritici, for example, affects the seeds of the cereals wheat and rye, and can result in serious crop losses. Unsurprising then that it should be one of the very few species detailed in the pages of Læssøe and Petersen’s Fungi of Temperate Europe. It would be a tough argument to make that smuts present much in the way of benefit to mankind, although it is worth mentioning that in Mexico, there is one species whose presence is more welcome: the Corn Smut (Ustilago maydis) transforms the kernels of maize into a delicacy known as huitlacoche. However, there are around at least hundred different smut species in the British Isles, and most are as common as the host they grow upon. This month’s Fungi Focus is on the Campion Anther Smut (Microbotryum violaceum), one of the most commonly reported and easiest to find, as Red Campion itself is in itself a very widespread native plant that pops up alongside roadsides, pathways and hedgerows to brighten up the summer months with its pink-red flowers. As should be clear from its name, this smut targets the anthers*, so can be spotted from a distance as the centre of the flowers will be a sooty brown to purplish-black colour (hence the ‘violaceum’ part of its name’) instead of the usual light pink, the stamen and anthers coated with this spore mass. [caption id="attachment_38171" align="aligncenter" width="675"] As nature intended? An un-smutty Red Campion.[/caption] While this smut adds little cosmetic appeal to the flowers, the teliospores do present a certain fascination when viewed under the microscope; spherical and ranging from 6-10microns in diameter, and covered in an intriguing pentagonal reticular pattern. The smut transfers itself to other plants by pollinating insects who would otherwise be involved in aiding the reproductive process of the campion itself. Smuts might be viewed as a sort of horticultural STD.  Nevertheless, the ubiquity of campion flowers at this time of year would suggest that this smut does not have a particularly negligible effect on the fecundity of this particular species. Indeed, from my own observations over the years, it is rarely that present even in areas rife with campion and when it does appear, it is localised to handful of plants. [caption id="attachment_38172" align="aligncenter" width="675"] The teleospores of Microbotryum violaceum, or more specifically,  M. lychnidis-dioicae.[/caption] Microbotryum violaceum is one of the more regularly recorded of the smuts that grown on the native plants of the British Isles, and as such one should consider it a native species in its own right.   In fact, more recent investigation has shown just how specialist it is. While I’m still using the old catch-all term for the sake of simplicity, it has been split up to create several more host specific ones: M. lychnidis-dioicae is the new name to describe the smut occurring on the anthers of Red and White Campion; M. coronariae appears on Ragged-Robin; M. saponariae on Soapwort; M. silenes-inflatae on Sea Campion and M. stellariae on Lesser Stitchwort. But one does have to ask oneself just how many people out there would consider a smut even worth recording. As specialist plant pathogens, individual species of smuts can be considered as rare or as common as their host plants, and with many native plants themselves under threat from habitat loss, their associated smuts suffer accordingly. Interestingly, according to a recent publication compiled by Ray Woods, Arthur Chater, Paul Smith, Nigel Stringer, and Debbie Evans entitled Smut and Allied Fungi of Wales A Guide, Red Data List and Census Catalogue (2018), “No smut species are specially protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 but a single smut species (Urocystis colchici) found on Autumn Crocus (Colchicum autumnale) is listed on Section 7 of the Environment (Wales) Act 2013 as being ‘a living organism of principal importance for the purpose of maintaining and enhancing biodiversity in relation to Wales’.” The same publication lists the example of Urocystis ulmariae, found only once in Wales on a single Meadowsweet plant, and placed it in the “Critically Endangered D2” category. The fascinating The Lost and Found Fungi Project, conducted by mycologists at Kew Gardens to investigate whether historically reported fungi species that have not been recorded in recent years are actually extinct or just not recorded, has also focussed on Rusts and Smuts. It is worth a look just as an example that there is some interest in smut distribution and conservation.  One might question the worth of recording, studying or conserving fungi species that so evidently hamper the reproductive abilities of their hosts. As ever, I’d argue in these posts that until the funding and human effort is put into such endeavours, we will never know. * anthers - pollen producing part of the stamens. Wild garlic
April Fungi Focus -  Chaetosphaerella phaeostroma

April Fungi Focus –  Chaetosphaerella phaeostroma

by Jasper Sharp, 13 April, 2022, 1 comments

In my last post I wrote about inconspicuous ascomycetes – the kind of tiny species that hide in plain site, manifesting themselves as little black dots on dead plant matter such as woody stems. This time, I want to zero in on a species that is not quite so inconspicuous and which grows on dead deciduous wood. After spotting it for the first time this year, it then started popping up everywhere in my local woods and beyond. I’ve found it in three different sites over the past few weeks alone. And not only me, as I’ve seen numerous postings in various online mycological interest groups by people who’d stumbled across it just as perplexed as I initially was. Who knows, perhaps the conditions have been particular good for it this year, or perhaps it’s always been around and I’ve just never noticed it. It’s name is Chaetosphaerella phaeostroma, and though it doesn’t have a common name in English, I’d argue it probably should do, as it is a fairly distinctive species. From a distance, it manifests itself as black fuzzy patches. Up close however, one notices that nestling amongst the felty patches of hairs are dozens of tiny slightly rough textured dark bluey-grey to black spheres up to 0.5mm in diameter.  [caption id="attachment_37861" align="aligncenter" width="650"] Chaetosphaerella phaeostroma[/caption] These are the perithecia of this pyrenomycetous ascomycetes  – if you didn’t read last months post, these are the hard black spherical flasks that hold the asci sacs that in turn hold and release its spores of this particular group. Looking closely, you can see the top of many of them have broken away, like the tops of Easter eggs. There are many, many fungi species that consists of groups of tiny spherical perithecia like this (to name but a few, there are the various species in the genuses of Nischkia, Ruzenia and Rosellinia, if you care to Google them). But Chaetosphaerella phaeostroma is distinguishable from these due to the coarsely hairy mat its perithecia are immersed in, known as the ‘subiculum’ (defined as the net, felt, or crust-like growth that covers a substrate formed by a mat of hyphae from which fruiting bodies emerge). In fact, there was a time when scientists believe this was two separate species, the orb-like perithecia being one of them, the hairy subiculum being another. [caption id="attachment_37862" align="aligncenter" width="650"] The large distinctive spores of Chaetosphaerella phaeostroma.[/caption] Fungi are complex organisms that constantly seem intent on thwarting those whose attention they attract. So it’s perhaps no surprise to find out that there is actually another species, Acanthonitsckea tristis, that looks superficially much the same as Chaetosphaerella phaeostroma. Whether it is more or less prevalent in the UK, I don’t know, but as ever, the way to tell them apart is through microscopic examination of the spores – the fungi in focus has relatively large (20-25x6-9 microns) banana-shaped ones that are segmented into four with the end segments lighter than the middle two;  Acanthonitsckea tristis has much smaller single-celled ones about 6-9x1.5-2 microns. [caption id="attachment_37863" align="aligncenter" width="650"] No hairy subiculum and totally different spores point towards an entirely different genus of Nitschkia for this otherwise very similar looking specimen.[/caption] I duly set about looking for the evidence, laying my find, after removing it from the wood with a penknife, facedown on a microscope slide overnight. The next day, I put the slide under the microscope and found thin curved ones, about 10x2 microns, which fit neither species. I was perplexed for a while, until the ever-helpful Emma Williams of the British Mycological Society pointed out that not only did the spores look more like those of the Common Tarcrust (Diatrype stigma), which I covered in some detail a few years back, or those of a number of other species in the related Eutypa genus, but that Chaetosphaerella phaeostroma doesn’t actually grow on dead deciduous wood, but parasitises these Diatrype and Eutypa species. I had stray spores. [caption id="attachment_37864" align="aligncenter" width="650"] In the top left of this picture you can see Chaetosphaerella phaeostroma growing as a parasite on its host in the bottom right, a member of the Eutypa genus.[/caption] And so I went back to break open the tiny perithecia and tried to ease a new batch of spores out. I was relieved that these did indeed perfectly match the large segmented spores of the Chaetosphaerella phaeostroma I thought I’d discovered. A closer inspection of the original photos also showed that beneath the margins of the felty subiculum, one could see the distinctive pimples of a Eutypa species upon which this was growing.  Whereas the Common Tarcrust is fairly easy to identify, the various Eutypa species are not so much. Some grow as a crust with the perithecia embedded in a spreading hard black body (the stroma) on top of the wood, like the Common Tarcust, and some species grow with the stroma forming beneath the wood and the perithecia emerging through it as little black dots. Wikipedia notes this “widespread genus is estimated to contain 32 species”. Even my fairly specialist literature at hand notes only about four species in detail, and I found no records of which might be found in the UK. [caption id="attachment_37865" align="aligncenter" width="650"] This cross-section photo shows the perithecia of this Eutypa species growing beneath the surface of the wood.[/caption] To be fair, such widespread but generally unremarkable types as Eutypa, of which we can find many more examples within the vast understudied field of ascomycetes, are not likely to be of much interest to anyone beyond those who have dedicated their life to the study of such things right down to the level of molecular genetics. I quickly decided it wasn’t worth my losing much sleep over narrowing it down to a species level.  However, that they themselves play host to more interesting species like our focus species, Chaetosphaerella phaeostroma, and therefore provide vital clues as to their identification, is more of interest to the amateur mycologist, and points to the complex and little understood interconnectedness of our woodland ecosystems. (I have covered several such examples of fungi-on-fungi relationships previously in these postings, including the Yellow Brain, the Silky Piggyback and the Bolete Eater). The other purpose of this month’s post is also to remind ourselves how surface features of many fungi only get us so far, and that how the complex and unusually-shaped spores of many of the otherwise nondescript ascomycetes can be a handy guiding feature.  [caption id="attachment_37866" align="aligncenter" width="650"] The lack of the fuzzy subiculum, the vestiges of white downy hair on the perithecia and in particular the long, worm-like spores guide us to an identification of Woolly Woodwart.[/caption] As an example, I just want to quickly mention another species I found recently beneath a damp, well-rotted deciduous log, the Woolly Woodwart (Lasiosphaeria ovina). The one has an english name, and one that reflects its appearance. While it too grows as tiny spherical perithecia that match the size of those of Chaetosphaerella phaeostroma, these are not immersed in the same black felty subiculum but are typically covered in the woolly white hairs that give it its common name. Except, however, that in the case of the specimen I found, these hairs had worn away, leaving distinctly un-woolly little black balls with little to identify them from without diving into the microscopic realm. Fortunately this was another one with highly unusual looking spores; large, long and worm-like, with dimensions around 40x5 microns, and singled celled – indeed, I initially thought I’d chanced upon a stray nematode on the microscope slide.  There are dozens of pages of tiny non-stromatic pyrenometous species listed in my go-to guide Fungi of Temperate Europe (vol 2., to be precise), and many many more unlisted. I hope that the example of Chaetosphaerella phaeostroma shows that not all need a microscope for identification, and that its not worth being too daunted by this group. [caption id="attachment_37867" align="aligncenter" width="650"] Chaetosphaerella phaeostroma[/caption]
March Fungi Focus: Bracken Map and other Little Black Dots and Smudges

March Fungi Focus: Bracken Map and other Little Black Dots and Smudges

by Jasper Sharp, 28 March, 2022, 0 comments

There are times when one does begin to wonder whether one has tumbled too far down the rabbit hole of mycological obsession. Though the Spring months might seem something like a drought period for many in search of curious fungi, they are all around us and all year round. For the hardcore few, the next few months in particular are a time of rummaging through hedgerows and peering at dried twigs, grasses and herbaceous stems in search of what effectively appear as little more than black dots. From then on, it is a just a small step away from the full-blown insanity of lichenology. This month’s focus is on the more common and recognisable of these obscure types, which all fall within the category of ascomycetes: these are the spore-shooter types that develop their spores internally, typically in tube or flask-like sacs and in batches of eight, as opposed to the basidiomycetes, where the spores grow externally on cell-like structures known as basidia, typically in groups of four, which drop off as they mature.  Patellaria atrata, growing as inconspicuous black dots on a dead fennel stem, with the spores arguable more interesting looking than the fungus itself. I’ve written quite lengthily about various groups of ascomycetes in previous posts, but despite the fact that they far outnumber the basidiomycetes in terms of prevalence and the proliferating number and variability of species – which include the colourful goblet-shaped Green and Turquoise Elfcups, the hard black woodwarts and tarcrusts, and other less noticeable things like Sycamore Tar Spots and Holly Speckle) – many consider them a no-go area due to the inedibility of the majority of them, not to mention the fact most are very difficult to even see, unless one is looking specifically for them, yet alone identify.  Few have common names, and even the Latin names change with alarming regularity as individual species find themselves reclassified or split up into numerous subspecies. The obvious exception here is that prized edible, the Morel (Morchellan esculenta, although there are a few other lookalike species), one of the few that make it into spotters guides and foragers handbooks.  The spores of Bracken Map developing within its ascus, with their characteristic crescent shape, relatively large size and multiple segments. To really get to grips with the subject would take the kind of life-long fanaticism and fastidiousness displayed by the likes of Peter Thompson, the author of Ascomycetes in Colour (2013), who has evidently spent years driving around the country in search of photographic examples of the numerous nondescript specimens that can be found on specific hosts such as dead grasses, leaves and other organic material. It took literally a lifetime of research before the husband and wife team of Martin B. and J. Pamela Ellis devoted their retirement from teaching to put pen to paper for their landmark Microfungi on Land Plants: An Identification Handbook, first published in 1985 with a revised and enlarged edition appearing in 1997. Though it’s technically been out of print for years, the book remains a must-have for serious mycologists, giving an exhaustive list with detailed illustrations of the type of species one might find on a wide array of specific hosts, and secondhand copies are accordingly pricey. There’s also been more recent scholarly books such as Bjorn Wegen’s up-to-date and even more comprehensive Handbook of Ascomycota (2017), but again, this is a specialist publication intended for an academic readership and priced beyond the range of all but the most curious of amateur naturalists. The foreword of the revised 1997 edition of Ellis and Ellis refer to microfungi as “ones which require the use of a microscope to see their variety”. Nevertheless, a microscope isn’t always necessary for the identification of a number of common types if you can ascertain their host. For example, over the next few months, if one looks closely at dead nettle stems, one might spot the tiny tangerine-coloured fruiting bodies (ascocarps) of Calloria neglecta, an ascomycetes fungus specific to them. Two very similar looking species grow on ash keys: Diaporthe samaricola, grows on the seed part; the smaller Neosetophoma samarorum only grows on the winged part. An even more extreme example of host specificity is Diaporthe samaricola, which over the winter months appears as miniscule black dots, less than half a milimeter in diameter, on the dried winged seeds, or keys (‘samara’) of ash trees. However, they will only appear on the seed part of the ash keys. Another fungus, Neosetophoma samarorum, produces eruptions of even smaller dots on the winged parts of the keys. The two will often appear side by side. They have no adverse affect on the health of the tree in question, although there is another ascomycetes that does have a notoriously detrimental effect on its host - Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, responsible for Ash Dieback and detailed in a previous post. Its small, white nail-shaped fruitbodies can be found on the blackened twigs and petioles at the foot of the infected tree around June. Bracken Map (Rhopographus filicinus) is another commonplace and instantly recognisable species that is host specific. It can easily be spotted at this time of year in most places where you find dead bracken, just prior to a new season’s growth sprouting up to replace the last, but actually one can find it all year round. The reason for its name is self-evident, as it grows in elongated spreading black blotches that eventually merge to form irregular shapes like countries on a map. Dead bracken stems throughout the year can be seen hosting the tell-tale ascocarps of the Bracken Map. These blotches are the ascocarps, the fruitbodies from which the spores are released. The are described as pyrenomycetous, meaning that like the tarcusts or woodwarts or commonly-spotted Cramp Balls (Daldinia concentria, aka King Alfred’s Cakes), they are hard, brittle, and often carbonaceous, optimised to continue releasing spores over a relatively long period of time during the late-winter and spring months when the weather is relatively dry and temperatures start increasing, and yet there’s little greenery about to shelter them from the dry wind and lengthening hours of sunlight or get in the way of spore dispersal. Each of these fruit bodies contains numerous tiny ‘perithecia’; flask shaped pits in which the asci sacks and the spores that develop within them are housed and are kept from dessication. The spores are released from holes known as ‘ostioles’ in the top of the perithecia that cover the black surface of the Bracken Map. If one looks really closely, one can see that the ostioles in the case of the Bracken Map are elongated along the length of the bracken stems. The ostioles from which the spores are released can just about me made out when the ascocarp is looked at extremely closely. The shape of the ostioles are a key feature in identifying other pyrenomycetous fungi, as detailed in my 2020 post on Woodwarts, Blackheads and Tarcrusts. It’s just as well, because there are many other types of such fungi that are not quite as distinctive-looking as the Bracken Map, and often much much smaller. I’ve been scrutinising various hedgerows recently, and noting that despite their superficial similarities, the seemingly identical black dots that appear on, for example, elder or hawthorn, are often very different species from those that appear on the woody dead stems of clematis or hogweed or other plants. Fortunately, for those with a microscope, these kind of ascomycetes do have very distinctive spores that often serve as much better means of identification, in consultation with the literature cited above, than the actual ascocarp fruitbodies. As mentioned, basidiomycetes produce their spores externally on basidia, growing like apples from trees almost, and so they are typically asymmetrical and one can note the vestiges of a kind of stem by which they were attached to the basidia. The ascospores of ascomycetes tend to be much more symmetrical, often much larger and in some cases much more complex, consisting of multiple cells in different arrangements.  These tiny specks on a dried hogweed stem could be anything, but the complex multi-celled spores compare with a species called Pleospora phaeocomoides. The spores of the Bracken Map are a great example of this – they are 27-35x7-8 microns in size, making them about three to four times the size of a typical mushroom-shaped basidiomycetes type like a Brittlegill – and to put this in perspective, they are just a smidgen smaller than the 40-micron threshold considered visible to the naked eye, or about the size of a small grain of salt. They are crescent shaped with 4-8 segments, and look rather like croissants under the microscope. I’ve detailed a scant few of these types of fungi prevalent over the next few months that can at least be recognised without recourse to a microscope. There are, however, at least 10,000 ascomycetes species found in the British Isles alone, so this is clearly a subject few will want to engage with too thoroughly. There are a couple of other more readily identifiable species that might catch the attention of the woodland walker, however, but I’ll leave these for next month... Bracken Map
February’s Fungi Focus :  Mycophilia and Recording the Fungal Diversity of the United Kingdom

February’s Fungi Focus : Mycophilia and Recording the Fungal Diversity of the United Kingdom

by Jasper Sharp, 17 February, 2022, 2 comments

Fungi seem to be enjoying something of a field day in the popular media at the moment. The 2020 documentary Fantastic Fungi, for all its faults, has fanned the flames of fascination in its subject since its appearance on Netflix last year. Startling stop-motion sequence of mushroom growth also made it into several episodes of Sir David Attenborough’s recent BBC series The Green Planet to highlight the centrality of plant-fungi symbiosis to our living ecosystems. This aspect has been thoroughly detailed in the field of popular science writing, with the highly-recommended Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures seeing the emergence of its author, Merlin Sheldrake, as the thinking man’s Paul Stamets when it comes to discussions of the Fifth Kingdom. There’s been a 3-part series, Fungi: The New Frontier, broadcast on Radio 4 in January, and a volley of no less than three articles appeared in The Guardian in November 2021: ‘The earth’s secret miracle worker is not a plant or an animal: it’s fungi’ by Giuliana Furci;  ‘A powerful and underappreciated ally in the climate crisis? Fungi’ by Toby Kiers and the aforementioned Merlin Sheldrake; and the announcement of an exciting new project in the report ‘World’s vast networks of underground fungi to be mapped for first time’. [caption id="attachment_36822" align="aligncenter" width="650"] ‘Ectomycorrhizal species like this eye-catching Fly Agaric perform a vital ecological role in our woodland eco-systems.’[/caption] Rather than a focus on a specific species this month, I wanted to offer a few thoughts, observations and suggestions about the hows, whys, and wherefores of learning more about  the world of mushrooms and toadstools.  As these examples demonstrate, the importance of fungi and both preserving and mapping its diversity is rapidly becoming a discussion point in the mainstream media, and as in other areas of nature recording such as butterflying surveying and birdwatching, the Citizen Scientist can play an important role in this. Reporting ones finds on wildlife observation websites such as iRecord or iNaturalist can provide invaluable information that can highlight how common a species is, both regionally or nationally, its favoured habitat, and how this might be affected by factors such as changing land use and climatic conditions. For example, I have covered a number of species in these blogs, such as the Crimped Gill or, more ominously, the Hymenoscyphus fraxineus fungi behind Ash Dieback, that were barely reported a decade ago but are now commonplace. [caption id="attachment_36823" align="aligncenter" width="650"] ‘Crimped Gills have become increasingly prevalent across the British Isles over the past ten years, but are still considered “rare” on the recording website iRecord.’[/caption] There is a major obstacle in all this though, namely that the domain of common knowledge about fungi is tiny compared with other areas of the natural world. Records with accompanying photographs submitted to these wildlife observation websites of birds, insects, molluscs or mammals are often quickly verified by those entrusted to do such things. Fungi recordings can go for many years without confirmation due to the lack of knowledgeable experts capable of undertaking such a task and a consequently mounting backlog of unverified recordings.  [caption id="attachment_36824" align="aligncenter" width="650"] ‘Tiny mushrooms such as this Bark Bonnet (Phloeomana speirea) can be throughout our woodlands all year round, but it often takes incredibly close inspection to confirm your identification.[/caption] Of equal, if not of more concern is the danger of the amateur nature spotter misidentifying and mis-recording their finds. It is better not to submit a record at all than an incorrect one, but as these posts have probably shown, identification is often a tricky business. A number of smartphone apps have arguably compounded the situation. Many fungi require close, even microscopic, examination to identify properly, something an app is never going to be able to do. Most only list the most common species, and no matter how powerful the algorithms powering them, they can often be miles off the mark. None, for example, would be able to distinguish from a photograph alone the difference between a Velvet Shank (Flammulina velutipes), and the other two Flammulina species that have been reported in the UK, Flammulina elastica and Flammulina fennae, nor the common Sulphur Tuft (Hypholoma fasciculare) with the Conifer Tuft (Hypholoma capnoides) or the Brick Tuft (Hypholoma lateritium). You would be on a hiding to nothing attempting to identify one of the numerous crusts of tiny disc fungi using such tools. [caption id="attachment_36825" align="aligncenter" width="650"] ‘A mushroom identification app will tell you this is a Velvet Shank, but only a microscope and a look at the host tree will tell you if it is Flammulina velutipes, Flammulina elastica or Flammulina fennae.’[/caption] Ready-fix solutions like phone apps have the drawback that they discourage people to put in the legwork of poring through identification guides, such as my 'go to bibles', Thomas Laessoe and Jens H. Petersen’s two-volume Fungi of Temperate Europe or Geoffrey Kibby’s 3-volume (with a fourth one pending) equally impressive Mushrooms & Toadstools of Britain & Europe, and of handling, smelling and generally scrutinising your specimens to really get to know your mushrooms.  Accumulating a library of books such as these can be an expensive business, but if you’re serious about getting into the subject, then the investment soon pays off (at least in terms of personal satisfaction rather than financial reward; mycology is alas a woefully underfunded area at the moment). If you are just getting started, there are also websites such as First Nature, and numerous Facebook groups with people willing to help out with your identifications. That is not to say I personally eschew computer-based solutions completely. The ‘Atlas of Danish Fungi’ website, affiliated with Laessoe and Peterson’s publication, has probably the best ‘Name Suggestions’ from a photograph feature I have come across. I have found it very useful when it comes up with a handful of candidate species to check against more thoroughly in the printed guides. [caption id="attachment_36826" align="aligncenter" width="650"] ‘Sulphur Tufts may be one of the most commonly found woodland fungi, but how many records have failed to distinguish it from Conifer Tufts or Brick Tufts?[/caption] What the recent flurry of media interest in fungi highlights, perhaps, is the huge disconnect between the scientific knowledge base and research, and the hive or folk knowledge exhibited by field recorders, many of whom have been at it for decades. In fact, so steep is the learning curve, getting newcomers interested in mycology and overcoming the mythologising and misinformation surrounding the subject is a real challenge. If your curiosity has been piqued and you wish to explore the subject further, firstly I would advise joining the British Mycological Society, and more specifically, contacting your local BMS affiliated Local Fungus Recording Groups, a full list of which can be found here. As the BMS themselves explain, “They are run on a voluntary basis by enthusiasts seeking to share their knowledge of wild fungi and improve your identification skills. Groups offer a welcoming environment for current and new members to enjoy exploring the world of fungi.” Joining up to your local group offers the chance to learn quickly what’s what in this fascinating field, as well as providing a nice social day out, and a chance to make your own contribution to a subject that is in much need of further exploration. [caption id="attachment_36827" align="aligncenter" width="650"] Never underestimate the power of smell - Angel's Bonnets (Mycena arcangeliana) have a distinct whiff of iodine about them.’[/caption]
January’s Fungi Focus – Netted Crust (Byssomerulius corium)

January’s Fungi Focus – Netted Crust (Byssomerulius corium)

by Jasper Sharp, 24 January, 2022, 0 comments

Crust fungi is a generic term referring to those species that grow flatly in patches that spread out against their substrate, typically on dead wood such as logs (on the side and underneath), or on stumps and fallen branches, although a merciful few may appear as unwanted guests in domestic settings, like the notorious Coniophora puteana (“Wet Rot”). Examples of crust fungi can be found throughout the whole year, but a few species are particularly noticeable around the winter months, when there’s little else of apparent interest around. The term ‘resupinate’ is often used to describe these types, which means that the fertile surface, or hymenium, from which they release their spores faces outwards, unlike conventional cap-and-stem types, where the hymenium is spread out over the gill area and faces downwards from beneath the cap.  With many of these species also forming shelves, with their uppermost margins projecting horizontally depending on the orientation of their substrate, some often find themselves described also as bracket fungi: indeed, a Facebook group dedicated to their identification, recording and photography is called Crust Fungi and Polypores. The most salient example is the Hairy Curtain Crust (Stereum Hirsutum), which is a common sight in broadleaf woodlands in January and February. (Note however that the terms ‘resupinate’ and ‘bracket’ are just descriptive categories which don’t have any meaning when ordering the various species in strict biological terms.) Crusts don’t have gills, but the hymenium can either be totally flat, in species described as corticioid, or it can be covered in pores, as for example species like the Cinnamon Porecrust (Fuscoporia ferrea). They also might be covered in warts, wrinkles, teeth or fine hairs that you might need a hand lens to discern properly. Different species can be a variety of colours (including salmon pinks, vibrant yellows and fiery oranges to the more nondescript white and not-quite white types), while other distinctive features might be their toughness, thickness, and how easy they are lifted from their substrate. I’ve covered a number of these different forms in more detail in previous posts on Elder Whitewash (Hyphodontia sambuci) and my rare find of Antrodia carbonia, as well as those linked already in this post. Identifying crust fungi can be a daunting business, with literally hundreds of species in the British Isles alone. Most might be happy to pass them by unnoticed. After all, they have no culinary value. This makes them a much understudied groups of fungi among amateur naturalists. For those that care to take a closer look however, the can do show up some very attractive aspects. The Netted Crust is one such example. It is very prevalent during the early part of the year and relatively easy to recognise. From my experience, it tends to grow on, and indeed along, fallen branches and twigs that are quite thin, with the hymenium facing down but the margins of the fruitbody projecting outwards in long extended wings, a bit like a flatworm.  On thicker branches, it might also form brackets.  The flesh is white and soft: it is easily torn and removed from the branch, although with age becomes tougher, with the underside hymenium also tinging yellow-brownish. The upper side, if looked at closely is covered in fine downy hairs, which you might need a hand lens to see properly. It is, however, the underside where this species really shows off its most magnificent aspect. It is covered in a much more discernible intricate pattern of low, irregularly shaped grooves and ridges, a surface that mycologists refer to as ‘meruloid’ – hence the ‘merulius’ part of its Latin name, Byssomerulius corium, and the ‘netted’ part of its common name. The Netted Crust is one of the most commonplace and readily identifiable of the crusts, and as such provides a wonderful gateway into looking more closely at this surprisingly fetching domain of fungi. As ever in the woodlands, it’s a case of look closely and you’ll find a whole new world of interest, and undoubtedly one of the best points about resupinate fungi is that you can find them across the entire year.  
November’s Fungi Focus - The Earpick Fungus (Auriscalpium vulgare)

November’s Fungi Focus – The Earpick Fungus (Auriscalpium vulgare)

by Jasper Sharp, 24 November, 2021, 0 comments

Not all mushrooms have gills. Some, like the boletes, have pores on the underside of their cap. Others have arrays of downward-facing spikes that look like teeth. This third category are described as hydnoid, and include such aptly named species as the Wood Hedgehog (Hydnum repandum) and this month’s fungi focus, the Earpick Fungus (Auriscalpium vulgare), also known as the Pinecone Mushroom or Conetooth. These teeth, like gills and pores, constitute the ‘hymenium’, the fertile surface in basidiomycetes fungi on which spores develop and from which they are released. Look under a microscope at a mushroom gill or the inside of a pore or the edge of one of these teeth, and you will see it coated with thousands upon thousands of tiny spore-bearing structures known as basidia (as opposed to the other group of fungi, the ascomycetes, where the spores develop and are fired out from tubelike structures known as asci). These gills, pores and teeth are nature’s ingenious way of maximising the spore releasing area that contain the basidia.  Two toothed fungi species - The Ochre Spreading Tooth and the Fused Tooth It should be pointed out that not all of the toothed fungi are of the mushroom-shaped cap-and-stem variety. There are also bracket and resupinate hydnoid types, like the Ochre Spreading Tooth (Steccherinum ochraceum) or the leaf litter-dwelling Fused Tooth (Phellodon confluens). However, all these examples point to the important rule I always emphasise when trying to identify fungi or taking a photo for someone else to do the job for you – always look underneath! To be honest, you’d find it pretty hard to mix up the Earpick Fungus with anything else at first glance anyway. Not only does its felty brown kidney-shaped cap, perched atop a slender but bristly stem, with row upon row of downward-pointing teeth on its underside, make it look like some weird alien monster you’d expect to see in a film like Little Shop of Horrors or in a Pokémon game. Its identity is also defined by its specific substrate of pinecones or other conifer-related litter. Earpick Fungus That is if you notice them in the first place. Earpick Fungi don’t tend to get much larger than 5cm in height and their caps reach around 3cm across at their widest point – as mentioned, the caps are kidney-shaped rather than circular, with the stem on one side of it rather than the centre. Their dun colouration makes them blend in with their conifer cone hosts, so you’ll probably only find them if you’re actively looking. But get down to ground level and look closely and you’ll see nothing else like these stunning little things. Just how unusual are they then? There seem to be a number of other species in the Auriscalpium genus (the Latin name literally translates as ‘ear pick’), according to its Wikipedia entry, but Auriscalpium vulgare is the only one found in the UK thus far. Indeed, it is considered the type species for Auriscalpium - the first of its kind discovered (in 1821 by the British mycologist Samuel Frederick Gray) to which all others in the genus are compared. Earpick Fungus The First Nature entry describes them as “infrequent and apparently localised”, which could mean that they are under-recorded because they are so inconspicuous and that the few people who do know where to look and what to look for are the same ones recording their discoveries on general websites like iRecord or more fungi specific ones like The Fungus Conservation Trust database. Fungi recording being the piecemeal process that it is, they may be a lot more widespread than we might assume, and indeed, photos turn up on various specialist fungi social media groups fairly regularly. This is not to say I would personally pick them, even to take home for closer analysis or to look at spore samples. I know there are plenty of foragers out there who are beholden to the mantra that a mushroom is only the fruiting body of the larger fungi organism and therefore picking them does no harm. As they argue, the rest of the mushroom is in the form of an expansive network of mycelium that is hidden underground, so it is essentially the same as picking an apple from a tree. Clearly the logic is flawed for both the Earpick Fungi and many other species, even if it did make a for a particularly choice edible (which by all accounts it doesn’t). Clearly the mycelium of this particular specimen is limited by the edges of its pinecone substrate, and therefore the ratio of its fruitbody size to the entire organism can only be very low.  Earpick Fungus In other words, the effort that the Auriscalpium mycelium in the pinecone channels into putting up a single fruitbody must be considerably more than that of, say, an ectomycorrhizal species like a Russula or Agariuc, where the mycelium forms an expansive network stretching around and beyond the roots of its host tree. Therefore picking it removes a substantial part of the organism, if we assume the fruitbody to be an inseparable part of the organism. If you do come across one, it is probably best to leave it there intact to continue releasing its spores rather than picking it from the cone and risking killing it off entirely.

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