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April Fungi Focus -  Chaetosphaerella phaeostroma

April Fungi Focus –  Chaetosphaerella phaeostroma

by Jasper Sharp, 13 April, 2022, 2 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.
October’s Monthly Mushroom - Blackening Brittlegill (Russula nigricans) and Silky Piggyback (Asterophora parasitica)

October’s Monthly Mushroom – Blackening Brittlegill (Russula nigricans) and Silky Piggyback (Asterophora parasitica)

by Jasper Sharp, 18 October, 2021, 3 comments

I have a love-hate relationship with russulas, the eye-catching, colourfully-capped mycorrhizal mushroom types known commonly as brittlegills. I love it when you chance upon a pristine specimen that has been unmunched upon by insects, slugs or squirrels. It seems impossible to resist the temptation to get down to ground level and take a snap. I hate the subsequent task of attempting to home in on an identification so you can put a label to the resulting photo. Identifying russulas is a painstaking process: determining which of the nearby tree species’ roots in a mixed woodlands it might be forming a mycorrhizal relationship with; in which range of hues does the highly variable cap colour fall within; sniffing to detect if there’s any hint of an aroma such as coconut or crab or strewed apples that goes beyond the simple description of “mushroomy”; the nibble-and-spit test to gauge whether its taste is peppery, acrid or bitter, or any of the other vague categories in between; the thorough examination of physical features such as gill spacing, stem width and how far the cap cuticle peels towards the centre; the rubbing with Guaiac and iron salts to see what colour the flesh changes... And this is before we even get to the microscope stage.  [caption id="attachment_36165" align="aligncenter" width="650"] The Woodland Brittlegill, Russula silvestris, is one of many red-capped brittlegills that need much closer inspection to identify correctly[/caption] Yes, it takes many years in the field to get one’s head around the 200 or so species of brittlegills that have been recorded across the British Isles. Nevertheless, there is one that is not only almost conspicuous within this genus by its utter drabness, but the remnants of its fruitbody, once it has fulfilled its spore-distributing process, leave one in little doubt as to what it is.  That is the Blackening Brittlegill (Russula nigricans), whose fruiting bodies are quite a bit larger than your average russula, getting up to around 20cm across as they expand and flatten out. They start out a grimy off-white colour before darkening through an ever-darkening range of slightly greenish greys and browns before eventually turning completely black. Unlike most fungi fruitbodies, these blackened caps don’t just turn to mush and rot back into the ground. They dry up so as to appear mummified, and you can find their black husk-like remnants lying around for months after the main fruiting season, often well into the following year. [caption id="attachment_36166" align="aligncenter" width="650"] The 'charred' remnants of the Blackening Brittlegill, Russula nigricans, distinguishable due to its relatively wide gill spacing as much as its black colour[/caption] The Blackening Brittlegill might seem pretty unique then, except that the mycological world is never that simple and the world of russulas even less so. In fact, there are a number of other species that blacken and desiccate in much the same way. The Fungi of Temperate Europe (2019) refers to them collectively under the category of ‘charred russulas’, and lists Russula adusta, Russula densifolia, Russula albonigra and Russula anthracina.  The British Mycological Society website includes common names for some of these: R. anthracina is the Coal Brittlegill, in obvious reference to its colour, while R. adusta is the Winecork Brittlegill, as it reputedly smells of empty wine barrels. R. densifolia is the Crowded Brittlegill, due to its tightly packed gills – something which distinguishes it from the Blackening Brittlegill, which has unusually widely spaced ones. When it comes to the taste test, R. acrifolia has hot peppery gills, earning it the memorable title of the Hotlips Brittlegill. [caption id="attachment_36167" align="aligncenter" width="650"] The Crowded Brittlegill before desiccating looks very similar to other charred russulas like the Blackening Brittlegill[/caption] Other features distinguishing these various species include the way the inner flesh colour transforms from their original white when a fresh mushroom is cut in half: R. adusta, R. densifolia and R. nigricans for example turn red then black, while R. anthracina goes straight to brownish black. But let us not get waylaid by any of this, because the main reason for covering these charred russulas this month is due to the way that these or carbonised cap remnants serve as mini ecosystems in their own right as they persist beyond the initial fruiting stage. Look closely and you’ll see them crawling with near microscopic bugs and larvae, and beyond the scope of the naked eye, they swarm with bacteria and other microfungi. This is the case for many decaying fungal fruitbody, it is true, but the charred russulas also provide the substrate for two more conspicuous species of fungi – the Silky Piggyback and the Powdery Piggyback. [caption id="attachment_36168" align="aligncenter" width="650"] The underside of an old Blackening Brittlegill is a haven for insects and other fungi[/caption] I’ve covered a couple of examples of fungi that specifically grow on other fungi in my previous posts on the Bolete Eater, which forms a fishy-smelling bright yellow mould on certain bolete species, and the Common Tarcrust, which plays host to the tiny orange spheres of Dialonectria episphaeria. There’s also a more obviously mushroom shaped example in the form of the Parasitic Bolete (Pseudoboletus parasiticus), which grows out of or in association with earthballs as part of a relationship that doesn’t seem to be clearly understood. However, I don’t think you can find a more striking example of such mushroom-on-mushroom weirdness than the two Asterophora piggyback species. Both are dainty little types that have a similar form and colour to your basic supermarket button mushroom, although their caps only rarely get much bigger than 2cm in diameter and the stems are relatively longer and thinner. The gills of both start off white, then turn brownish. [caption id="attachment_36169" align="aligncenter" width="650"] A group of Silky Piggybacks growing on an old Blackening Russula cap[/caption] The two are pretty similar unless you look very closely, and even then it is not always clear. The cap of the Silky Piggyback (Asterophora parasitica) is fibrous, giving it the silky appearance that gives it its name. The Powdery Piggyback (Asterophora lycoperdoides) is slightly smaller, but its main distinguishing feature is the pale brown dusting on the upper side of its cap. This powder is made up of asexual spores knows as chlamidospores, and is as is noted on the First Nature website, is an unusual feature of basidiomycetes fungi, which produce sexual basidiospores on their gills or in pores (in such examples as the bolete fungi) – the Powdery Piggyback also produces these basidiospores on their gills. [caption id="attachment_36170" align="aligncenter" width="650"] Silky Piggybacks[/caption] One thing that is worth mentioning is that despite the ‘parasitica’ part of the Latin binomial name of the Silk Piggyback, neither are parasitic in any true sense of the word. They are in no way detrimental to their russula hosts. They just have evolved to grow on the long-lasting blackened remains of the various charred brittlegills (they can also be found on the decaying remnants of a number of milkcap species). And so now is the good time to find these curious types. The russulas in general tend to begin fruiting early during the summer months. The Blackening Brittlegill begins appearing in late summer and autumn in both coniferous and deciduous forests, but many will have gone over now and can be seen lying on the ground among the fallen leaves, beech mast, pinecones and other forest litter forming a mushroomy substrate for these two Piggyback species, which you might barely even notice unless you are looking closely at the ground beneath your feet. [caption id="attachment_36171" align="aligncenter" width="650"] Silky Piggybacks[/caption]
August Fungi Focus: Oak Mazegill (Daedalea quercina) and Blushing Bracket (Daedaleopsis confragosa)

August Fungi Focus: Oak Mazegill (Daedalea quercina) and Blushing Bracket (Daedaleopsis confragosa)

by Jasper Sharp, 13 August, 2021, 0 comments

It is good to have points of orientation in the woods. No matter how familiar with a particular spot you might be, these environments can change so dramatically throughout the seasons – paths and clearings become overwhelmed with brambles, branches that weren’t an obstacle in the winter become suddenly more so when covered in leaves, and woodlands are ironically much gloomier in the summer months with a thick canopy overhead than when the trees are bare – that it’s surprisingly easy to lose ones bearings.  One of the marker points in my favourite stomping ground, a chestnut coppice just outside of Canterbury, was a bracket fungus that I found growing from the top of a stump several years ago. It was a relatively easy identification for me from this sometimes daunting group – the labyrinthine arrangement of branching, elongated grooves quickly pointed me towards an Oak Mazegill, despite the fact it was growing on chestnut.  Oak Mazegill For several years, this particular specimen by the side of the path also signalled the point where I knew I’d entered into a sector of more ancient woodland, and one of those hotspot areas where there were usually lots of exciting finds nearby. Then one day it was gone – the clean cut at the base where it grew from the wood indicating that is had been consciously removed with a knife. Even now, about a year later, I can still see traces of the patch where it had endured on the top of the stump for so many seasons. The Oak Mazegill, or Daedalea quercina – the first part of its latin binomial referring to the figure of Daedalus who in Greek mythology constructed the labyrinth at Knossos housing the legendary minotaur – is a particularly prevalent fungi in my local woodlands; much more so because, as a perennial, the fruiting bodies last for years rather than rot back or drop off at the end of the season. It shares this aspect with the tough woody brackets like the Artists Conk (Ganoderma applanatum), covered in passing in a previous post on brackets, which has been known to last for decades. Oak Mazegills aren’t quite as durable, although I’ve no real idea how long a fruit body might last. Their flesh is tough, but still possible to make a clean cut through it with a sharp knife with relative ease, as if it were a piece of rubber. Oak Mazegill This species highlights the importance however of always looking at the underside when trying to identify brackets. The top is rather nondescript, a sort of buff, pale yellowish brown colour ranging to orangish brown and reaches up to 20cm across. They often grow in semicircular tiers, with the full width of the body firmly attached to the wood making them very difficult to dislodge, and sometimes have an upside-down pyramidal shape, so that if viewed in profile, the maze-like underside is very easy to see. The growth isn’t always so uniform, however, drawing attention to the fact that there can often be a fine line between the brackets and certain poroid resupinate or crust fungi, with the form they assume heavily influenced by the orientation of their substrate.  Oak Mazegills don’t always immediately form brackets when first emerging, with the specimen depicted here assuming a more resupinate form. For example, I found myself once very confused by a newly emerged Oak Bracket growing from the top of a  stump that had yet to form a cap, so that all that could be seen was a think bulbous growth covered in brain-like grooves that could look like a number of other thick poroid resupinate fungi, such as the Common Mazegill (Datronia mollis) – and it should be mentioned that the Common Mazegill, while often found in its flat resupinate form, can form caps if growing on a vertical substrate, albeit with thinner caps of a far darker colour. The not dissimilar resupinate fungus the Common Mazegill has a less pronouncedly maze-like pattern of pores Mature Oak Mazegills, I do find pretty distinctive, but the reason I’m covering them for this month is that it is during the summer months that the new fruitbodies start emerging, so if you have any problems identifying them, I’d suggest going back and monitoring their progress over the coming months, for there are a couple of species that you could confuse them with before they are fully grown. The first of these is the Birch Mazegill (Trametes betulina), but these form much more delicate annual fruitbodies which are thinner fleshed and more easily broken, with grooves on the underside that are sharper edged and look more like conventional mushroom gills (although as I described in the post linked above, these aren’t true gills) and a felty upper surface. They also grow on birch, rather than oak or chestnut, so there shouldn’t so much room for confusion here. The Blushing Bracket is less ‘chunky’ than the Oak Mazegill, despite certain similarities when viewed from above. Rather more easily confused for the Oak Mazegill, however, especially in their early stages of growth, is Daedaleopsis confragosa, the Blushing Bracket. Again, these feel a lot slighter, thinner and flatter than the chunky, coarse gilled bodies of the Oak Mazegill, although the flesh is similarly tough.  However the base is much narrower where it grows out of the wood, making it look more fan-shaped. Looking underneath, the pores are much less maze-like, and more like straight lines, which become more elongated as the cap grows radially outwards.  The underside of the Blushing Bracket reveals very different patterns than that of the Oak Mazegill The cap surface starts out a pale beige, but as it grows, it darkens through pinks, browns, russets and vinaceous purples to near black, hence the name. They also are more pronouncedly ‘zonate’, with subtle differences in texture and colour appearing from the centre and outwards. The Blushing Bracket might be confused with a number of other long-pored brackets in their early stages, but if you follow their development across the months leading into winter, it soon becomes clear what they are. Again, they favour deciduous woods, but are less likely to be found on oak and chestnut than on birch, alder and willow. Some of the literature suggests that Blushing Brackets are perennials, like the Oak Mazegills, but my experience suggests that while the new fruit bodies from any given summer may be found well into the winter, very few make it past a year. Blushing Bracket : The upper side of the Blushing Bracket darkens and reddens across the winter months Blushing Bracket : Sometimes reddening to a dramatic deep red These are but a couple of the more common hardwearing brackets with elongated pores that are found in the UK that might seem a little drab when just glimpsed in passing, but actually are quite interesting when you know what you are looking at. Like so many fungi, the exact differences are difficult to describe precisely in words, but once you get a feel for them, they can be recognised at a glimpse.  If you are a regular woodland wanderer, it’s worth paying at least passing attention to them because, as mentioned before, the new fruitbodies will have already begun appearing by now, and given that they’ll be with us for some months yet to come, it’s rather fascinating looking at how both species develop in form and colour. Additional images. Blushing Bracket Oak Mazegill Oak Mazegill Blushing Bracket   

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