As the trees turn bare and opportunities for momijigari diminish – a Japanese word for admiring the colours of autumn leaves – lower your eyes when out on your woodland walks and you’ll find that there are still a good many fascinating fungi around to seek out and admire. Today we look at six species, some more common than others, that you might discover fruiting in Scotland during November.
Herald of Winter (Hygrophorus hypothejus)
As its English name suggests, this species is said to appear after the first frosts, signaling the beginning of winter, although of course frosts can occur any time in Scotland! This species can regularly be found under conifers later in the season, is very distinct and, once you get your eye in, it is very easy to spot.
Look out for an olive brownish cap with a darker centre and a glutinous surface texture – the remains of a glutinous universal veil. A universal veil is a temporary membranous tissue that fully envelops the immature fruiting bodies of some gilled mushrooms.
The flesh is a rich yellow / orange below the cap, which can sometimes be seen in damaged areas. The gills are decurrent (running down the stem) and become yellow at maturity. The stem is dry above the pronounced veil zone and slippery below.
Fruiting can occur as early as August but the main season is from September to November, tailing off quickly in December. It likes the acidic soils found under conifers – most usually under pine but occasionally larch and even birch. It is thought to be ectomycorrhizal with pine, a form of symbiotic relationship which provides the tree with most of its nutrients.
Cucumber Cap (Macrocystidia cucumis)
The small brown cucumber cap is also quite distinct. The cap can grow up to 5cm across and usually has a rich, dark red brown rather velvety appearance. The colour will fade as the cap dries out. The cap can be conical or more flattened with either a broad or nipple-like umbo – the small bump on the top of some species. The edge of the cap can be faintly striate (stretch-marked) and is often a paler and contrasting yellow brown colour. The gills are paler, starting out white and becoming a reddish ochre colour; and they are adnexed, reaching the stem but not attached to it. The stipe is stiff, pale at the apex, but dark and velvety below.
It is a saprotrophic or ‘recycler’ fungus, which helps to break down dead plant material. Fungi are the only group of organisms that can break down lignin, found in wood and bark, and without them we would be buried under many metres of woody debris. They also play a vital role in driving the carbon cycle, releasing nutrients that they don’t require back into the environment.
The cucumber cap has a smell that ranges from putty, through cucumber to distinctly fishy – along the lines of cod liver oil. It likes rich humus or nitrogen rich soils and is often found in nettle patches and increasingly on woodchip mulches in gardens and parks. It occurs throughout the year but can also be found in the late autumn and winter months.
Olive Oysterling (Panellus serotinus)
The olive oysterling also occurs throughout the year but is mostly recorded between late November and February. This species has a much reduced stem forming to the side of the cap and a more or less kidney-shaped cap which can reach 10cm across. The upper surface is distinctly olive greenish, sometimes with reddish or lilac tones near the point of attachment to the wood on which it grows. In wet conditions, the cap will be viscid and glutinous but the cap can become dry and matt. The under surface has yellowish /orange gills.
The olive oysterling is another saprotrophic (recycler) fungus, breaking down dead wood on the forest floor. Look for it on dead deciduous wood, usually large fallen trunks or branches, particularly beech and birch but also on alder, ash, oak, willow, elder and elm.
Chicken-of-the-Woods (Laetiporus sulphureus)
Chicken-of-the-woods is also saprotrophic, causing brown rot often on oak and other hardwood trees, such as beech, chestnut, and cherry. It can colonize both dead and living trees acting as a weak pathogen on living trees. Wood is primarily composed of cellulose (long chains of sugars) and lignin (one of nature’s most complex substances). Brown rot is characterised by the brown colour of the wood which is a result of the fungus degrading the cellulose and similar wood components but leaving the lignin untouched. It is one of the easier to recognise fungi, its large size and striking yellow / orange colour making it hard to miss, especially as a single tree can often produces several kilos of this fungus.
Some say it possesses a remarkably similar texture and taste to chicken, which is where it gets its common name. If collecting to eat it is advised to just collect young specimens, being bright yellow to orange, as older specimens, being dull yellow to white, become rather woody with age and often develop an acrid flavour. It’s a fast growing fungus which, if just the outer edges (about 5 cm) are collected/cut, recovers quickly and allows for a second harvest later during the season. However, around 20% of people show sensitivity to this mushroom becoming ill quickly after consumption. For this reason it is advised to only consume a small portion the first time it is tried. In addition, fruit bodies growing on yew trees are best avoided as the conifer itself contains toxins which apparently are taken up by the fungus.
The wavy-edged cap of the fruit body ranges 5 to 30 cm across, up to 20 cm deep and up to 3 cm thick, growing in a cluster that can reach up to 75 cm across. The Chicken-of-the-Woods belongs to the family of the Polyporaceae, and as suggested in the name Laetiporus meaning ‘with bright pores’, has small, pale yellow tubes, rather than the more commonly encountered gills, underneath the fruit bodies. The fruit body grows directly out of the tree trunk and therefore does not possess a stem. The flesh of the fruit body is thick, watery and soft when young and turns into a tough and woody like structure that becomes crumbly and cheese-like with age.
Chicken of the woods is most commonly found from August till late autumn but occasionally occurs as early as May.
Piggyback Pinkgill (Volvariella surrecta) & Clouded Funnel (Clitocybe nebularis)
Piggyback pinkgill is a species that fruits on the fruiting structures of another late season, litter-rotting species – the clouded funnel. The exact relationship between the two is not entirely clear. Piggyback pinkgill has free gills, produces pink spores and has a distinct volva – a cup-like structure at the base of a mushroom that is a remnant of its universal veil.
While rarely recorded in Scotland, so far, with such distinct characteristics and its specific preference for the clouded funnel this is a pretty easy one to identify.
The cap of the clouded funnel can be variable in form as the images below demonstrate. The wavy cap edge is not an important distinguishing feature even though it looks distinctive in one of the photos. Not getting distracted with these variable characters is something that you learn with experience and all part of getting to know your fungi.
The host species, Clitocybe nebularis is often found in nitrogen rich soil and litter in gardens and both deciduous and coniferous woodlands. Since the key to finding Volvariella surrecta is to track down the host, these are the habitats to check.
The main fruiting period for these species in Scotland is in September and October but records occur in November, December and January so it is worth keeping an eye out for even late in the season.
You can help to improve our knowledge of the distribution of fungi in Scotland by reporting your sightings to Scottish Fungi here. And if you’d like to get more involved you could join one of Scotland’s six fungus groups, each of which promotes the appreciation and survey of fungi in their area. Find your local Fungus Group.
Many thanks to Liz Holden & Dave Genney of Scottish Fungi.