An autumnal feel to the weather this week, with cold temperatures, fog in the morning and now strong winds and rain. But there is always a plus-side to the changing of the seasons, and one of the best of all is the appearance of fruiting bodies on the fungi and lichens in the wood. There are just a few fungi around in the summertime, but autumn is when they really get going.
I use the words fruiting bodies intentionally: fungi are present as complex webs of threads known as mycelium all year round. The mycelium of a fungus can be extraordinarily large in a woodland setting, sometimes spreading among a whole root system, or several root systems, or even a whole woodland. The mycelium can be extremely important, part of a system that effectively extends the roots of the trees. The fungi are organisms that feed on decaying organic matter, breaking it down and returning the nutrients to the soil. This is a vital role in the forest ecosystem. The decaying matter can be in the form of small particles in the soil, larger lumps of organic matter on the surface of the woodland floor, or even huge fallen trees and logs. The mycelium of the fungus is tiny, microscopic even, but so important, and yet almost invisible. These tiny hair-like webs perform their task underground, under the leaft litter, on the woodland floor and below, returning nutrients to the soil, and in many cases the fungi work in a very close and harmonious relationship with the tree roots, as mycorrhiza, so the tree can benefit rapidly from the nutrients released by the fungi, while the fungi benefit from sugars and starches produced by the trees. A symbiosis.
The fruiting bodies we see appear only when the fungus is reproducing. They are the toadstools or mushrooms of the woodland, appearing in many different forms: traditional toadstools, tiny fairy toadstools, bracket fungi of all sizes and shapes, little club-like fungi, large jelly-ear fungi on the surface of trees, clusters of toadstools emerging from rotting trees and logs. Just bewildering. There are fungi that last for week, and fungi that last for just a single day. All shapes, colours and sizes.
As well as fungi, some of the lichens are fruiting at this time of year, some forming little cup-like structures bearing spores, others forming little club-like structures. Lichens are amazing organisms – again, a symbiosis of a fungus with algae or cyanobacteria, the former providing a structure, water and nutrients, and the latter producing sugars by photosynthesis. They are amazing things, growing on rotting logs, forming a tiny ecosystem in their own right with a variety of mosses and fungi. One major reason why rotting wood should be left on the woodland floor and not tidied up. They are vital in the rotting process, and in turn provide habitat for insects such as beetles, flatworms, roundworms and many other creatures at the base of a complex ecological web.
There will be many more fungi emerging over the next few weeks, and I hope to capture more of them, but these are some photos taken at the weekend of the first ones.