Grassland Paintbox

There is colour, and then there are waxcaps: the jewels of autumnal meadows, sparkling after the rain.

Golden waxcap1 30 Oct 20

The UK is internationally important for waxcaps. In a similar vein to wildflowers, these strange and beautiful fungi are dependent on ‘unimproved’ grassland – that is, fields which have not been damaged by fertiliser, reseeding, horse grazing or the other problems of modern agriculture. Some of the best waxcap displays are in the west but we do have a few good places here in the south-east as well.

Golden waxcap is the most common.

Golden waxcap2 30 Oct 20

Blackening waxcap can start off as a similar hue.

Blackening waxcap2 30 Oct 20

But it soon changes.

Blackening waxcap 30 Oct 20

Scarlet waxcap does not – a tiny, impossibly vivid ruby in the grass.

Scarlet waxcap 30 Oct 20

There are green waxcaps. There are white waxcaps. There is even one species that is pink. But they are all sensitive to pollution, and if grassland is damaged, they can take decades to recover.

Meanwhile, back in the shelter of the trees, fly agaric reach preposterous sizes.

Fly agaric 30 Oct 20

What is a fungus? The bright caps catch our attention, but are only the fruiting body. The actual organism, which is neither plant nor animal, exists as strands of white threads – mycelium – in the soil or other substrate. Many species form symbiotic relationships with plants, supporting them with nutrients. Fungi are essential to life, but they are also patient: in any given year, a field will not have all species in fruit, and discovering all the fungi that actually live there can take a good part of a lifetime.

Patience. A good word to remember in this uncertain year.

A Different Sort of Somewhere

The Broads may be boggy, but another corner of Norfolk stubbornly turns steppe. Modelled piecemeal by ice ages until hard chalk was topped with sand that varies from a skin to full-blown dunes, it is patterned now with a truly bewildering array of wild things. Breckland is dry, cold, haughty and mysterious, the sort of land that grew the likes of Queen Boudicca and buried 17th century villages in roving sandstorms.

It was helpful to prehistoric people, however; it supplied them with flint. I’m not qualified to say if this flake is manmade but it is a reminder, like the rabbits introduced by the Normans, that humanity and the Brecks have known each other for a while, and still aren’t quite sure what to say.

Flint Brecks

You know when you are in Breckland, but like the geology, the landscape is a riddle to describe. Heathland, ice age formations like pingo ponds, sandy warrens, flowers that grow nowhere else in the country – it’s also ended up supporting lowland Britain’s largest coniferous forest, planted in the 20th century to supply timber. 

And the rabbits keep watching.

Rabbit Brecks Oct 20

But it was the fungi that stole the show last week. There is fly agaric, which looks like it belongs in a fairytale.

Fly agaric Brecks

There is death cap, which has found itself in many tales, generally of a rather dark kind involving assassinations of unpopular royalty.

Death cap Brecks

We have given many species ill-fitting names, but not the death cap – it is precisely what it claims to be. It is packed with amatoxins and just half a cap can be fatal. I don’t often come across it, but like deadly nightshade and grizzlies, it is a reminder that nature has rules and needs to be treated with respect.

More innocent, perhaps, are the fungi that decorate a pine cone.

Cone fungi

And finally, shaggy ink cap or lawyer’s wig.

Lawyer's wig

Its fame is that it self-dissolves into a gooey ink, which some say was used to sign the Magna Carta, although I’ve been unable to trace the source of that claim. A touch of unknowable seems requisite for residents of the Brecks.

Turning Seasons

Strange thing, September. For the last two years, autumn has appeared to start precisely on the 1st. The air cools, the mornings are sweeter, and the last swallows hunt over dewy fields. And woodlands acquire that watercolour glow.

Autumn comes

Water – rainwater – is what fungi need, but last year’s switch from dryness to extreme undying rain produced few. I hope we have more of a show this year, and the boletes have already fruited, carpeting the road verge with otherworldly glory.

Bolete 5 Sept 20

And the foxes – hints of their winter coats are starting to frost the russet.

Fox stepping WF 31 Aug 20

Fox-Orange

While wondering why WordPress has enforced a change upon us of creating blog posts in ‘blocks’, I can also reflect on how nature simmers soft orange in the still days of late summer, colours daubed on a landscape of fading flowers and moulting birds.

Chicken-of-the-woods has a full sample of that orange.

Chicken of the Woods 18 Aug 20

This year has been a lesson in living without things that were taken for granted for so long, some trivial, some far less so. But could we live at all without fungi? They grow the trees that breathe oxygen – they form symbiotic relationships with so many plants that the world would be unrecognisable without them. Some species, including chicken-of-the-woods, tidy our landscapes through consuming deadwood. Some sprinkle orchids in meadows through bonding with seeds. 

Fungi are the gardeners we do not notice, growing a little, pruning a little. And in the world that they hold together, bigger liveforms wander. Roe deer, too, have assumed a fox-orange pelt which become grey when the nights draw in.

Roebuck 18 Aug 20

And the foxes themselves – they are growing, wandering, questioning what the land can provide for them.

Foxcub2 TH 18 Aug 20

This is a ‘teenager’ cub; it is nearly adult height, but its long limbs, smooth coat and small proportions give its youth away.

They stray into places heavily changed by people, but dressed in a nature fit for late summer. 

Fox urban 18 Aug 20

Soon they will disperse to pastures new, and many more fungi will brighten up the woods.

The Tree and Thee

Or: the afterlife of a tree.

It was older than me, probably significantly so. It was almost unnoticed in life, tucked behind a conifer – just its roots highlighted by fly agarics, those garish fungi of fairytales.

Fly agaric1 30 Sept 19

And then, Storm Ciara knocked it east.

Silver birch down

Thus perished the silver birch of the garden’s right border. It had its revenge on the conifer from beyond the grave; the tug of its roots unbalanced its rival, which promptly followed it lawn-ward a week later in Storm Dennis. But while conifer wood is of limited value to wildlife and had to be removed, the birch trunk soon acquired a fan club.

Fox Spindle 17 Feb 20

This is Spindle, the garden’s resident comedian. He arrived last autumn as a gangly ‘teenager’ along with two vixens, who may well have been his sisters. His brush really was as thin as a spindle – not only was he suffering from sarcoptic mange (which causes severe fur loss) but he also appeared to have fractured the vertebrae. A few doses of Stronghold cured the mange, and his bones have healed, albeit at a strange angle.

Spindle brush 17 Feb 20

Now healthy, he is full of mischief, and the birch is his innocent accomplice. He sneaks behind it to leap playfully on other foxes – and is also the perfect vantage point for scanning the world.

Spindle4 6 Mar 20

I have slowed down the ‘March in Flower’ idea because unfortunately most of our plants are still firmly asleep, but I will keep posting species as they awake.

Bright as a Button

Autumn is my favourite season. The flowers may have largely taken their leave, but in the wake come things brighter and stranger.

Beech russula 15 Sept 2018

It’s a brittlegill, AKA a member of the Russula family. Something is eating the brittlegills; this is one of the more intact ones that I’ve found. My trailcams caught squirrels tucking into what appeared to be the much greyer charcoal burner Russula cyanoxantha, but that is unlikely to be the whole story. Rodents, slugs and even foxes eagerly accept wild mushroom buffet.

Russulas are famously difficult to identify to species level. This could be a beechwood sickener Russula noblis, which might explain why the squirrels haven’t munched on it.

They brighten up the woodland floor, whatever they are. A small spider is resting on this one’s stem.

Beech russula3 15 Sept 2018

Jelly-ear fungi decorate branches.

Jelly ear Figgs Aug 2018

Mower’s mushrooms Panaeolus foenisecii add intrigue to the grass.

Fungus golf course Aug 2018

And bracket fungi of all kinds form shelves on the dead bones of old trees.

Bracket fungus Aug 2018

Autumn has much more to give. Most of the leaves are yet to fall.

Khamsin in the wood 15 Sept 2018

Romania: Apold – Never Eat an Amanita

June – August 2016

Fortunately, nobody does. We’re welcomed into the woods above the final Transylvanian village by the most notorious species in European biodiversity: a death cap Amanita phalloides. Eat this, and you will need a liver transplant…at best.

Death cap2

Gathering medicinal plants is a common activity in Transylvania; I’ve met many elderly women doing just this while I’m out on my mammal surveys. But as with most things in life, you do need to know what you’re doing. Apart from highly poisonous fungi, these hills also host deadly nightshade.

Deadly nightshade

Going back to the mycology, we note many boletes, some of which are edible.

Bolete

So, Apold. I don’t remember much about arriving here. I had a headache for a full week in Daia and arrived in the final village desiring nothing except sleep. The novelty of the campground wakes me a bit – it is actually inside the parameter of a fortified church. The students are based in the towers, but I’m sticking to my trusted tent.

The village is modern enough to contain car noise and German tourists. There is an ‘end of season’ air to the work this week and my main ambition is not to lose any more cameras. Trailcam 4 gets special treatment of course – we leave it on a track next to some huge bear tracks.

The transects are laced with electric fencing, but I find mammal sign before even leaving town: badger fur caught on wire.

Badger fur

Going higher, we find some very welcome mammal sign – bear scat!

Bear scat4

The geography is for the adventurous spirit; the Great Thicket of Apold remains in our mind for many days. We achieve the gold standard of Apold by climbing right through it, but it’s so hot, and transect after transect is starting to blur into one.

Apold thicket

But with a few surprises – a beautiful slow worm greets us. This is not a snake, but a harmless legless lizard.

Slow worm

Time rolls on. The final survey is only days away.

Seeing Stars

The dust has gone, but clouds have taken its place, and there’s little hope of astronomy tonight. But earthly stars thrive in the rain.

Earthstar 19 Oct 2017

This bizarre fungus is an earthstar, which superficially resembles a puffball. Raindrops knock spores from its mouth.

Waxcaps are also thriving in autumnal drizzle. Parrot waxcaps are green with varying flourishes of orange. Like many waxcaps, they are indicator species which signal relatively undamaged ancient grassland.

Parrot waxcap 19 Oct 2017

I have hardly seen the sun today, but when it rose on Tuesday morning, there was still a Saharan edge about it.

Red sun 17 Oct 2017

Sunrise from the train 17 Oct 2017

Sepia

Sepia sky1 16 Oct 2017

Today the sky says that it is not an island. It’s painted sepia from lands far away, and dyes the world beneath into almond and darkness.

Sepia sky2 16 Oct 2017

The air is coloured with ash from the forest fires in Iberia and dust from the Sahara, sucked northwards by the force of Hurricane Ophelia, which is currently battering Ireland as a post-tropical cyclone. At 3pm the light levels slumped as if in the afterglow of winter twilight, and humanity rebelled by flicking on streetlights and headlights – but it seemed feeble under such a sky.

Before the dust, there was colour: leaves that would seem improbable if a human artist drew them.

Leaf 16 Oct 2017

And fungi carved into maple leaf-shape by slugs.

Leaf-shaped bolete 16 Oct 2017

Their less-eaten peers were in full show this morning. Meadow waxcaps are one of the largest of the waxcap family, and this is the first time that I’ve found one in my area.

Meadow waxcap 16 Oct 2017

But any giant is relative. The waxcap was dwarfed by a monster in the ancient woods. The lens cap is about 2 inches (5cm) wide, and the mushroom cap would dwarf some saucers. Its identity still eludes me, but possibly it’s an exceptionally big honey fungus.

Fungus giant 16 Oct 2017

The dust is sweeping northward and the sky is greying. I would not surprised to find a sprinkling of African sand over the cars tomorrow.

On a blustery day

A girl with windblown hair – perhaps. Funny how the imagination sees things at times. Her hairstyle will not last for long; she is a glistening inkcap, and is self-dissolving. Inkcaps turn themselves into inky soup that allows the spores to drip away.

Glistening inkcap 8 Oct 2017

While inkcaps dissolve, waxcaps dazzle. They are often called the orchids of the fungi world because of their glamorous colours. They also conservation waymarkers; it can take eighty years for them to recolonize a site after disturbance. Fields with high waxcap diversity are old by definition, and precious.

Golden waxcaps sprinkle gold dust in the mosses.

Golden waxcap 8 Oct 2017

Diamonds and rubies may follow – many other waxcap species dwell under that field, each a different and improbable colour. I will keep walking and watching.

Around birch trees, the theme is red and white.

Fly agaric2 8 Oct 2017

Fly agarics do not look quite real.

Fly agaric1 8 Oct 2017

Sadly, this one had been knocked over by someone. But even in its severed state, a mature fungus will continue to drop spores; they are only the fruiting bodies of the mycelium which is hidden in the soil. I left it there to continue its work.