Winter is the time to seek out some of our most colourful and unusual fungi.
When the leaves are down, the autumn fruit and berries have fallen from the trees, and the icy grip of winter is finally upon us, don’t let this deter you from venturing out into the local woods. It is at this time of the year, when days are at their shortest and temperatures struggle to reach double figures that a walk around a local wood can be a very rewarding experience. Now is the time to seek out some of our most colourful and unusual fungi.
The following seven examples are just a small sample of the many colourful and bizarre fungi to look out for in the dark days of winter, but make a great start.
For conservation reasons please do not collect every toadstool that you come across, but taking a small sample home for identification purposes is quite acceptable, and don’t forget to take your camera with you so as not to miss out on that fabulous shot!
Scarlet elf cup
To happen upon a striking, bright-scarlet, cup-shaped fungus on a winter walk can be a real surprise. Scarlet elf cups can appear at any time of the year but they are most abundant and conspicuous during late winter and early spring when the surrounding vegetation has died back. The cup-shaped fruiting bodies, which are quite brittle and become more tattered with age, appear in small groups in damp and often shady places, and when examined closely are found to be attached to dead twigs and wood debris often buried below the surface of the ground. The similar-looking Orange peel fungus Aleuria aurantica could be confused with this species but the latter is bright yellowish-orange in colour and more irregularly wavy.
To discover a group of collared earthstars growing on a wooded bank is a real bonus to the winter walker. This is the largest and most frequently encountered earthstar in our area and when fully expanded can be 10cm in diameter.
The spore-sac is mounted on 4-8 starfish-like rays which often crack as they bend, resulting in what appears to be a collar, giving this species it’s common name. When the spores are ready to be released a small hole appears at the tip of the sac and they are discharged by the action of wind and raindrops depressing the spore-sac. Grouped together in woods, parks and gardens during the autumn, the fruiting bodies are long-lasting and persist throughout the winter months and well into the following year.
This very conspicuous golden-yellow ‘jelly fungus’ is found throughout Britain and mainly seen during the months of winter when the fruiting bodies appear on dead branches of deciduous trees. Although Yellow Brain is gelatinous to the touch when damp, during dry weather it turns orange and shrivels and is quite unnoticeable. Although at first glance appearing to be attached directly to the twig, it is in fact growing from the surface of a wood-rotting crust fungus that has already colonised the wood.
Dead molls fingers
The aptly named dead molls fingers appear in late-Autumn clustered on old, fallen branches of mainly Sycamore left to rot away naturally. The texture of this blackish coloured club-shaped fungus is coarsely warty and roughened with a hard, white, fleshy interior. The similar dead man’s fingers xylaria molymorpha which it can be confused with is stouter and more often found on dead stumps of beech and other broadleaved trees.
The fruiting bodies of the parasitic honey fungus - armillaria mellea appear during the months of autumn and continue well into the winter. This species of fungus can be very damaging to living coniferous and broad-leaf trees. Black rhizomorphs develop beneath the bark of the tree, which eventually falls away to reveal the bootlace-like mycelial threads.
These threads can spread through soil, linking the mycelium in an infected tree to healthy trees which might be several metres away, and in this way many trees can fall victim. However, in recent times it has now generally been accepted that within the group formerly called honey fungus, there are several distinct species of which not all of them are parasitic.
During December and January look out for clusters of Winter Fungus on rotting stumps and fallen logs, particularly those of elm, ash, beech and oak. The fruiting bodies of this fungus appear during the coldest months of the year when very few other gilled fungi are to be seen and provide a point of interest to the hardy mid-winter walker. Velvet Shank is another of its common name due to the velvety texture of the cap.
During November and December wherever there are broadleaf woodlands where fallen timber is allowed to rot away naturally, look out for this very widespread and common jelly fungus. The purple jellydisk grows on rotting wood of deciduous trees, especially beech, and is listed in the top 100 fungi to be found on fungus forays.