"Nature...seems increasingly better understood in fungal terms:...as an assemblage of entanglements of which we are messily part."
- Robert Macfarlane in Underland
Autumn is a transition season - from the busy heat of summer to the still coolness of winter. The harvest gifts us apples, berries, nuts and seeds to enjoy and we may experience a burst of creativity. Then slowly, as the earth continues to tilt away from the sun, autumn becomes a time of letting go and we turn our attention inwards in preparation for the winter.
Mushrooms, the fruiting bodies of fungi, appear to release their spores - a fertile time - as trees begin to lose their leaves and concentrate their energy below ground to their roots - an inward looking time.
Deep under the earth, these two organisms entangle in a relationship 500 million years old (humans have been around for 200,000 years). In ancient forests trees are connected through this net-like mycorrhizal (fungi-root) fabric.
Watch Professor Martin Bidartondo talk about the evolution of this ancient relationship:
It makes us question where does one organism start and the other end? Is perhaps the whole ancient forest best seen as a single living organism? And where does it end? Without trees and plants humans would not be able to breath and would not have food to eat. The more we learn, the more we realise that life is "an assemblage of entanglements of which we are messily part."
But not all mushrooms are part of mycorrhizal fungi, some mushrooms belong to fungi that recycle, break down and compost matter.
As you go out into the woods this autumn, keep an eye out for these easy to spot mycorrhizal mushrooms and imagine which trees they may be entangled with under the earth.
1. Fly agaric (toxic)
Common names: Fly agaric, Toadstools
Scientific name: Amanita muscaria
Identification: Red cap with white spots
Trees they connect with: ectomycorrhizal, connects with beech and pine
When Amanita muscaria form mycorrhizal (root-fungi) partnerships with trees, genes are switched on in the fungus that increase its ability to absorb carbohydrates. The tree responds by making more carbohydrates available to the fungus. These genes are only switched on in mycorrhizal partnerships.
2. Porcini (edible)
Common names: Cep, Porcini, Penny Bun
Scientific name: Boletus edulis
Identification: White when young, maturing to look like a crusty brown roll (hence penny bun). Thick and bulbous stem.
Trees they connect with: ectomycorrhizal, Pines and spruces
Boletus edulis forms mycorrhizal (root-fungi) partnerships with pines and spruces, such as the Scots pine. In exchange for carbohydrates created through photosynthesis the fungus provides the tree with nutrients such as nitrogen it has gathered from the environment.
3. Bicoloured deceiver (edible)
Common names: Bicoloured deceiver
Scientific name: Laccaria bicolor
Identification: Two tone stem with a lilac base and a tawny coloured upper
Trees they connect with: Pines and conifers
Laccaria bicolor forms mycorrhizal (root-fungi) partnerships with pines and other confiers. In exchange for carbohydrates created through photosynthesis the fungus provides the tree with water and nutrients it has gathered from the environment.
If you enjoyed this blog, you may like my downloadable and printable digital nature guides that take you on a magical journey to get to know more deeply a seasonal plant - from an autumn woodland fern to a winter Scots pine.