Garden Ecology: The importance of Fungi in the flower garden

Mycena
Possible Mycena sp. (exact species not yet identified). Cap c.12mm, c.70mm tall, stem c.1mm. Found in grass. Cap not slimy. Whitish spores.

We may not notice the presence of fungi in the garden for most of the year but in the autumn the reproductive part, the mushroom, begins to appear around the garden.  There is such huge variety of forms and species that beginning to understand them more can be both challenging and fascinating.

A brief introduction

A fungus is made up of long strands or filaments called hyphae which form into cobweb type nets called mycelium.  Unlike plants, fungi do not have chlorophyll and so cannot build up there own carbon compounds through photosynthesis.  Like animals they take their sustenance from others, either dead or living plants or animals.  Some fungi are particularly valuable to the gardener as part of the annual cycle,  decomposing dead plant matter and returning nutrients to the soils.

Three groups of fungi that gardeners and flower growers should be aware of are:

Decomposers that break down and convert dead organic matter so that the plants can access it to make new fresh growth.

Mycorrhizal fungi that grow on or within plant roots and help enable plants to gain greater access to plant nutrients.  These are commonly sold in garden centres these days particularly for use at planting time with shrubs and trees.

Pathogens that either reduce plant vigour or cause death.  Typically you will notice these if your seedlings or young plants ‘damp-off’ but there are also many other disorders that are fungal in nature (as opposed to bacterial, viral or nutritional).

We will return to mycorrhizal fungi and pathogenic fungi in future blogs but for now we will concentrate on the very visible fungi in the garden, the autumn mushrooms.   The mushrooms that you see are the fruiting bodies that produce and release microscopic reproductive spores.  As far as I can see the words mushroom and toadstool seem to be interchangeable.

Identification of mushrooms

I must admit that I am very much a novice at identifying mushrooms but it is a challenge that I want to start to get to grips with.

If you find a specimen that you want to identify then taking a picture on your phone (though useful) is really not sufficient.  You will need to note some or all of the following:

  • the size, shape, colour and texture of the cap;
  • the length and width and colour of the stem and whether it has a ring;
  • flesh colour and smell;
  • whether the mushroom has gills, tubes or teeth;
  • the attachment of the gills if they are present and their colour;
  • the colour of the spores; and
  • where you found them and whether they grew on grass, wood, leaf litter, dung etc.

If like me you struggle to tell the difference between all the many mushroom genera (and even more species within those genera) there are some places where you can get help:

Reference books – there are many of these but one that I have found very useful is “Mushrooms and other fungi of Great Britain and Europe” by Roger Phillips (ISBN 0-330-26441-9)

Facebook groups – these are always great fun and the Facebook Group “Mushroom Spotters UK” is very active at this time of year and is very informative

Identification phone Apps – I have been trying out the “Mushroom Identify – Automatic picture recognition” App on my Android phone.  Great fun but I am not entirely sure how good it is yet.  Basically you take one or more pictures of the specimen and let the phone have a go at identification.  It typically gives you 4 or 5 suggestions and provides very effective links to further information and pictures.  It certainly gets you started but you need to refer to other references as well.

Online identification keys – again there are a number of these on the web and one we have found interesting is the Mycokeys online Morphing Mushroom Identifier (MMI).  There is also a wealth of information and a pictorial guide on fungi on the First Nature website.

Photographic reference library – there is a very comprehensive set of photographs at http://mushroomobserver.org/image/list_images

In reality I find that I use all of these techniques on a single sample to try and hone down the list of ‘possibles’.  Bit by bit the same suggestions appear and you begin to get more confident in your choice.

Two examples of recent finds (November 2017) in our flower garden are shown in the pictures below (possible Clitocybe nebularis) and at the start of this blog (possible Mycena sp.).  It’s a fascinating subject and the diversity of what you will find when you begin to look closely is amazing.  Have a go!

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Possible Clouded Agaric (Clitocybe nebularis) – the cap is about 100mm across and the whole mushroom is about 120mm high. The stem is around 15mm at the base and is wider at the base than the top. The top of the cap is leathery and not slimy. The spores are white/light grey. It was growing on leaf litter under an oak tree.

Just a final warning:  Do not eat any mushrooms you don’t know.  You could die.

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