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Monday
Nov072016

Top 5 Fungi Species

 

It's the height of autumn! The time of glorious colour bursting from the trees and now from beneath the ground, but not from flowers, from fungi. Autumn is already a fleeting season at the best of times, and the time for fruiting mushrooms even more so, so let's delve into the weird and beautiful world of fungi before the first frost comes.  

1) Chicken of the Woods

flickr | squeezyboyThis common mushroom grows mainly on Oak trees throughout the world, but can also be found on Yew, Cedar, Willow and Eucalyptus. Some species also grow on conifers. Its name derives from its remarkable resemblance to the taste of chicken when cooked, and because it can be prepared in many ways similar to chicken meat it is used as a substitute in vegetarian dishes worldwide.

However, despite its edibility and deliciousness it can still be dangerous. In fact any edible mushroom still has the potential to be toxic or even fatal as fungi are exceptional at bio-accumulating toxic elements or heavy metals from the soil, or absorbing any toxins from poisonous trees they grow on, such as Yew.

flickr | Maja DumatThere are also several species of Chicken of the Woods all around the world, the edibility of which have not all been documented. Caution is advised as even the safest specimens, though not fatal, can still disagree with whomever consumes them.

2) Honey Fungus (A. solidipes)

flickr | j.e.mcgowanAround 45 species come under the bracket of Honey Fungus, all of which are pathogenic to many trees around the world. Honey Fungus establishes on a host, then spreads throughout the tree feeding on both living and dead matter. Once the tree is a sufficient stronghold the fungus spreads its mycelium outwards under the soil to infect others, its mycelial cords carrying the infection as well as nutrients from the previous host to help new fruiting bodies establish. This negates the need for symbiosis as the fungus does not need to keep the host alive for any particular benefit.

Honey Fungus truly divide and conquer as every fruiting body is genetically identical, each spreading as far as 30ft, making them some of the largest organisms on Earth. The largest individual was an A. solidipes discovered in the Malhuer Forest in Oregon's Blue Mountains spanning a massive 9.6km2

These mushrooms are highly prized throughout Europe as one of the most delicious, and are even ranked above chanterelles. However, all Honey Fungus is slightly toxic if eaten raw so must be properly cooked before consumption. Even if cooked its ill effects are also brought out if consumed with alcohol, so it's advised to not drink for 24 hours after, and even 12 hours before to be on the safe side.

3) Hat-thrower Fungus

This tiny, unassuming mushroom is in fact the fastest organism on Earth. Their speed is achieved during the release of their spores, which happens through the build-up of turgor pressure in the vesicle (the translucent bulge below the black spore capsule). When the pressure gets too much the spore capsule flies off, reaching 45mph in the first millimetre of flight! Although never exceeding 5cm in height this speed allows it to launch its spore capsule up to 2m away.  

 

The nature of their spore capsules means they have a very niche lifecycle, as the viscosity of the fluid inside the vesicle makes the capsule adhesive; sticking to a plant or nearby grass in the hopes of being eaten. The spores can safely pass through the digestive tract of grazing animals, later reproducing in the nutrient rich dung, starting the life-cycle again.

4) Cordyceps (Ophiocordyceps unilateralis)

flickr | The Next Gen ScientisThese fungi before, made famous for their "zombifying" effects in films and video games in recent years. All species of Cordyceps are endoparasitoids, the vast majority of which being entomopathogenic. Their insect hosts are usually ants and wasps, but also include arthropods such as spiders and isopods. Each genus of Ophiocordyceps is tailored specifically to affect one host species.

In the case of O. unilateralis the host species is Camponotus leonardi, a species of Carpenter Ant that lives in the treetops of rainforests, and instead of merely infecting its host until it dies, can actually alter the ant's behaviour.

flickr | Katja Schulz

Once the spores break into the ant's exoskeleton a reaction starts triggering convulsions, causing the ant to fall from its treetop home. On the forest floor the cordyceps now has full control, compelling the ant to climb up to a leaf of a specific height where the precise humidity and temperature maximises fungal reproduction. When the ant is in place, usually on the northern side of the plant, the fungus makes the ant clamp down on the leafs central vein with its mandibles. It's only at this point, after making the ant fulfil these very specific instructions, does the fungus kill the ant. The hyphae spreads throughout the ant locking the mandibles like a vice whilst more mycelia spreads out and down into the leaf itself; once securely fastened the cordyceps produces its spores and emerges the fruiting body out of the ants head. The whole process takes between 4 and 10 days and infectious spores can decimate entire ant colonies.

5) Fly Agaric

flickr | Mrs AirwolfhoundThis mushroom is immediately recognisable featuring in folklore and fairytales across the globe. They occur across most of the northern hemisphere but have been accidentally introduced into Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Fly Agaric are easy to spot in mixed woodland around the deciduous and coniferous trees they form symbiotic relationships with. They are a true gem of autumn in the UK.

Fly Agaric are considered a delicacy in Europe and North America despite being documented as mildly toxic, but can be eaten safely if prepared correctly. Effects upon ingestion include nausea, vomiting and drowsiness but also contains the psychotropic substance muscarine. Death from consuming them is very rare.

Historically these mushrooms were consumed by the Celts; druids would eat them for their hallucinogenic properties in shamanistic rituals, and given to berserkers as a stimulant on the battlefield to defeat besieging Romans.

If you get a chance to go mushroom spotting this autumn Fly Agaric are a must see before the first frost comes.

 

By Thomas Phillips - Online Journalism Intern

 

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