Of all life on earth, there is something more mysterious, and yet more vital to our survival, than anything else. It’s birth is violent, much of it’s life hidden underground and only at the end of it’s life cycle does it reveal it’s identity – the mushroom.
Many people think of mushrooms as just something to eat, or as a decoration in folk tales, but nothing could be further from the truth. They have a secret life so magical, so weird, that it defies imagination. They are some of the largest and deadliest living things on the planet. The story is so strange that it seems more like an alien life form, yet mushrooms are crucial to all life on earth.
The kingdom of the fungi is hidden away in all manner of foods and products from the blue mould in cheese, the citric acid in drinks and detergents, in bread and chocolate, and it turns sugar into alcohol.
If you look hard enough in the woods at Ashridge you will find them everywhere.
Fungi evolved as a kingdom in their own right billions of years ago – they are neither plant nor animal. The field mushroom is just one type of fungi, and is the easiest to recognise. It was fungi spores that enabled Fleming in 1928 to discover the first antibiotic – penicillin. The mushroom is the fruiting body of the fungi, which reproduces through the emission of millions of spores. The fastest thing on the planet is not only a cheetah or a peregrine falcon, but the tiny hat thrower fungus or dung cannon, when scale is considered. It grows on cow-pats and when the nutrients are exhausted it needs to move on so projects itself at forty miles per hour onto a blade of grass, which will be eaten by a passing cow thus propagating another generation.
The mushroom is such a dominant life form. While the fruiting body is seen above ground, the largest part of the organism lies underground, in the form of a large web of tiny threads spreading out in search of food. – the mycelium. They glean food by attaching themselves to other plants, and have a symbiotic arrangement where they pass water and minerals to the host plant in exchange for sugars. The honey fungus however does not have such a friendly arrangement since it takes more than it gives, eventually killing the host. Ash die back or chalara is much the same with the fungus sucking the life out of the tree.
Saprotophic fungi digest waste or dead matter and if this scavenger was not present in our woods, we would be overcome with detritus. Here we find the oyster mushroom acting as a recycling machine, breaking down fallen timber after bracket fungi have destroyed a failing tree. This ability to break down cellulose through the mycelium threads is being harnessed to produce new forms of packaging, and being able to digest chemical waste it is being used to restore polluted habitats.
The fact that so many mushrooms are poisonous to man makes us nervous about them, so they are best left alone. Half a cap of the death cap mushroom is enough to kill a grown man, slowly and painfully. Poison pie is another one to avoid as is the sickener mushroom, Russula nobilis, commonly found in beech woods. When you next take a walk in the woods at Ashridge, don’t look up, look down and marvel at the intricacies of nature in the world beneath your feet – and let her be.