Autumnal flowering of the fungi

David Beeson

Of course, fungi are not flowering plants, yet many people refer to their spore-producing structures as ‘fruiting bodies’ – implying plant. The basic plant has chlorophyll to trap sunlight energy and cell walls made of cellulose. Fungi have no chlorophyll or cellulose and have a totally different lifestyle. They are clearly not plants but a quite distinct living form – the FUNGAL KINGDOM.

One thread = hypha, many hyphae = mycelium.

Fungal cells usually occur in strands (hyphae) and may, or may not, have walls separating one ‘cell’ to the next. Their walls are not composed of cellulose but of chitin, a product more often associated with insect bodies.

Nutrition in fungi is animal-like. They secrete enzymes that digest their prey before the simple end-products of that digestion are drawn into the hyphae. The range of materials they can digest is exceptional. Even complex and hard to breakdown materials can be used as food, including waxes and the material that makes cellulose into wood – lignin. All enzymes appear to be released from near the growing tip of the hyphae and some products released, e.g. penicillin, can reduce competition from bacteria.

Everyone understands that fungi are vital recyclers of organic materials. For example, fallen leaves may initially be fragmented by soil invertebrates and the fungi complete the task. These little regarded organisms are vital to any ecosystem.

However, organisms often diversify with time and that is true of the fungi. Many fungi are parasitic on flesh, e.g. athlete’s foot fungus, or attack living plants, e.g. ‘damping off’ fungus.

Experiment. Place some slightly damp bread into a see-through container. You’ll soon see hyphae!

Many people have produced their own bread at home. This relies on a single-celled fungus called yeast. The fungus, under anaerobic conditions, breaks down starches and other carbohydrates to alcohol, releasing both carbon dioxide (to raise the bread) and energy for fungal growth.

In the autumn of 2019 a continuous dousing of Harewood’s forest floor and the still relatively high ambient temperature encouraged a glut of fungal fruiting bodies.

Clavarias-type fungus in Harewood
Puffball, Lycoperdon perlatum?

Roger Phillips, in his ‘Mushrooms’ publication, states that there are ‘in the region of three thousand larger fungi to be found in the British Isles’. And that does not count the myriads of smaller fruiting bodied types. Some fungi, of course, are edible while others deadly. Best perhaps to enjoy looking at them and leave identification and consumption to others!

Earth star fungi sometimes appear locally.

Occasionally one encounters a really odd organism. And, I not talking human now! Slime moulds.

A picture containing food

Description automatically generated

I think this is a slime mould! Growing on wet decaying wood.

Slime Moulds were once considered to be fungi but are now classified in a completely different kingdom. They begin life as tiny amoeba-like organisms which hunt for bacteria to eat. They mate to produce plasmodia which can grow to a large size feeding on micro-organisms. These slimy masses can move like giant amoeba. When food begins to wane, the plasmodium migrates to the surface and produces fruiting bodies (these are the fungi-like structures that we find). The plasmodia produce spores which hatch into amoebae to begin the life-cycle again.

Here is what Warwick University says about them:

Movement, memory and problem solving are abilities we normally associate with animal behaviour and a nervous system but is that always the case? Could a brainless organism exhibit intelligent behaviour, could it be capable of learning and if so, can we learn anything from it?

If you pay attention when you’re outside on an autumn day you might see something unusual. In amongst the leaves, around the mushrooms and toadstools, oblivious to the animals running around making their winter stores, there’s something that doesn’t quite fit it.

I guarantee that you’ve seen them but maybe not noticed. A few orange spots on the end of a twig, tiny iridescent baubles or a foaming yellow mass on the bark of a tree. If you stopped to look and waited a while you might even realise that these things are alive – and moving with a purpose, just not very quickly.

These strange organisms are not plants, they may be mobile but they’re not animals. They make mushroom like fruiting bodies but they’re not fungi. They are curious misfits in our labeled and classified world – Slime moulds – amoebae that make spores, a simple description that sums them up neatly but doesn’t remotely explain how strange they really are.


Looking after a slime mould …… publish panel

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