A damp walk in Hamsterley Forest, between Weardale and Teesdale, last Friday proved to be a good bet – whilst Storm Callum raged on higher ground, the path along Spurlswood Beck was remarkably sheltered. There were no flowers to speak of but some gorgeous autumnal colours in patches of beech woodland by the beck.
The brightest colours, though, were on the woodland floor – groups of brilliantly-coloured Fly Agaric mushrooms, Amanita muscari, straight from a Brothers’ Grimm fairytale.
More intriguing than the familiar red and white caps, though, were the youngest mushrooms. The fruiting bodies emerge covered in a white veil, which becomes thinner as it stretches, and cracks to reveal the scarlet surface beneath.
This veil is one of the characteristics of the fungal genus Amanita, as is the skirt-like ring left around the stem or stipe when it breaks apart.
Like other Amanita species, Fly Agaric is poisonous – full of psychoactive substances such as ibotenic acid and muscimol. The striking colour acts as fair warning!
Like other Basidiomycete fungi, the visible mushroom or toadstool is the fruiting body of a huge network of fungal tissue beneath the ground. Fungi form symbiotic relationships with many plants, particularly trees, helping the plant roots scavenge for nutrients such as phosphorous and nitrogen by vastly increasing their surface area and by secreting enzymes into the soil which break down organic material. In return, the tree supplies the fungus with the sugars it needs to grow. Not only that, but more recent research (Gilbert & Johnson, 2017) has shown that mycorrhizae can connect different plants into networks which can help prepare individual plants for attack by herbivores and pathogens. If one plant in a network is attacked, signals can be sent via the fungal hyphae to prompt others in the network to beef up their defences. The only time most of us are aware of this world beneath our feet, however, is in autumn when fungi produce fruiting bodies above ground in order to disperse their tiny spores – our familiar mushrooms and toadstools.
Gilbert L, & Johnson D, (2017). Plant-plant communication through common mycorrhizal networks. In How Plants Communicate with their Biotic Environment, Ed. G. Becard. Advances in Botanical Research, 82, 83-97