What is it about funghi - why do we know so little about them? How often do we spare a thought about the good work they are doing year in and year out decomposing life's natural litter below our feet? Yes, they get a passing acknowledgement when the fruits pop up in huge variety at this time of year, or when as brownies we dance around a plastic toadstool, or they feature cutely bright red with spots on a child's duvet cover. Perhaps we do know a little about the "mycelium" which lives beneath the soil in the form of a huge, branching colony of thread like vegetation which absorbs pollutants but that is a whole area of study in itself. Beyond the prettiness of funghi, there does seem to be a basic ignorance of the "features and benefits" or so it appeared at the start of our walk yesterday!
We were honoured by the presence of our guide for the morning, Joyce Pitt, who is the Funghi Recorder for Kent and a veritable mine of information on all things mold, lichen and funghi related. She went off at a rate of knots from the outset, pulling apart squashy funghi in the car park, digging her fingernails in and describing the various characteristics of gills, spores, stypes, stumps, stems, belts, parasols and "smells". Smells, it seems, are the very best way to identify the different species so funghi were passed around the group for a sniff - and described as "mealy", "radishy" and "stinky" for starters. I think we all realised almost immediately that "we know nothing" as they might say on "'ello, ello"! Joyce also soon realised she had to pull back on the scientific detail and patiently explained that funghi fall into 4 colour groups - brown, white, black/purple/blue, and pink. She declared each spore colour with great enthusiasm although it was sometimes tricky for our untrained eyes to agree. Joyce used her walking stick to poke, dig up and pluck unsuspecting and resting funghi from nooks, crannies and pathways in the murky damp of Sevenoaks Wildfowl Reserve where there are apparently 600 species and increasing.
She name-dropped any number of other rich areas for funghi in Kent and seems to spend a great deal of time exploring the countryside and giving lectures etc. So we were in the hands of a passionate expert. Apparently Kent is the most densely-wooded county in the UK holding a wide variety of habitats and soils. Lucky us. Each wood will show very different funghi because of the soil structure and the trees in it. We were told that this particular reserve is "secondary woodland" which means the vegetation has grown from a cleared sight - ancient woodland being the original. (e.g. Emmetts). Thus different soil organisms work away in each location resulting in the huge range of funghi to be found.
This particular Sevenoaks area is thick with birch which we were told will rarely live beyond 40 years as each tree will eventually be "eaten" by funghi which cause the trunk to snap off half way up. We saw bracket funghi on the silver birch called Birch Polypore (piptoporus betulinas) which is the culprit here. As Joyce is steeped in the scientific side of things she found it difficult to recall the common names for each species - reeling off latin names with aplomb. However, a quick look at my pocket guide at home reveals that we actually saw (alongside boletes, blewits and parasols) candle snuff; roll rim bracket and bonnet cap.
The candle snuff didn't look like funghi at all, but rather like tiny, tiny black match sticks with white tippex tops - I think we were all fascinated by them. We started to see things we had always passed by before - which is the whole point of these walks - Joyce could spot the subtle variety of colours in each specimen and pointed out clouded agaric (the one that often creates the fairy rings), the fascinating knobbly cream Helvella Crispa along the path which is a "shooter" i.e. when the time is right it shoots out its spores in one firing. We found a beautiful blue/green funghi which Joyce conceded could be called a "Verdigris" rather than the full latin name and a cinnamon coloured Cortinarius.
There was great excitement at one point as someone in the group handed Joyce a small, rather indifferent stick, with moss and a white smudge of mold along it. She immediately dropped her cotton specimen bag and stick, stuck her eyepiece in place and declared it to be a "tooth" funghi and probably the first ever to be found at Sevenoaks. Out came the Tupperware specimen box and a small penknife. The "tooth funghi" was carefully scraped off, placed in her box for study later and the stick tossed aside. We could only stand and admire this determined and indomitable character as she climbed through bushes and up bramble covered banks in her mission.
The morning reached a climax as we headed back to the carpark to see two stunning fly agaric - these are the bright red story book variety with the white spots (I believe the Big Ears and Noddy used to live in one?). Without hesitation Joyce pulled one and explained that the white spots are the residue of the "veil" that would have covered the toadstool as it was growing. This is called a "universal veil" as it looks like a globe. Then all of a sudden, on some mysterious signal, the pizza like top of the toadstool appears as it sheds the veil. Just like growing in a womb - but popping up rather than pushing down!! How fascinating it all is - our eyes have been well and truly opened. Then our intrepid leader spotted yet another "first" growing alongside - this time a small, blue fungus - which was carefully placed in the specimen bag. So Joyce left us a happy woman. A worthwhile morning for her despite having to stoop down (but kindly) to accommodate our obvious ignorance. I will propose another walk next autumn in a different location so we can all learn a little bit more now about the mostly fathomless world of funghi.
As the year comes to a close we will have a last get together for coffee and cake on Thursday, 6th December at Haskins Garden Centre at Snowhill at 10.00 am. If you haven't let me know so far, just drop me a line if you would like to come along.
Thereafter, I will plan and publish our jaunts for next year so we can dream about exploring our beautiful Garden of Edenbridge as we try to tolerate the winter months.
Happy Days! - Briar