Despite the rather cold, grey days of the last week the garden is beginning to green up nicely with fresh leaves and shoots. The different textures and shapes are fascinating in themselves. Here are six to demonstrate the rich variety.
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.
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!
Just a final warning: Do not eat any mushrooms you don’t know. You could die.
Looking out across the garden in the autumn sunshine on this November morning it is the Cotoneasters and Pyracantha that are some of the star plants of the moment. Their red and orange berries give a spark of colour to the yellow autumn hues of the hedgerow trees.
Perhaps rather over used in municipal planting, especially Cotoneaster, there are many interesting cultivars and species to choose from both to add interest in the garden and for use in floral arrangements.
For an added bonus these shrubs bring the garden wildlife right up to the house windows. It is such a pleasure watching the birds feeding on the Pyracantha. This morning in just a few minutes we saw a pair of the most beautiful Bullfinches (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) in their red plumage, a Dunnock (Prunella modularis) and a Song Thrush (Turdus philomelos) all feeding together. Blackbirds (Turdus merula) and Redwings (Turdus iliacus) are also regular visitors whilst the Blue Tits (Cyanistes caeruleus) shelter on the branches whilst busily feeding on the insects on the window panes and under the roof tiles.
Varieties in the garden at Waverley
We are not entirely sure of the species and varieties we have here at Honey Pot Flowers so please feel free to comment if you think we have got the identification wrong.
Cotoneaster Cornubia (Cotoneaster X watereri ‘Cornubia’)
This is quite a large fast growing shrub with dramatic arching branches and long willow like leaves. It has large showy clusters of red berries that stay on the plant much later than the ‘wild’ types of Cotoneaster that we have around the garden. It is semi-evergreen and has glossy dark green lanceolate shaped leaves which are clean and free from disease.
Very similar in habit to Cornubia but has creamy-yellow berries. It is semi-evergreen in our garden with a lovely arching habit. The berries hold well.
Related to the Cotoneasters, these plants come in a wide range of colours and the name of our variety is lost in the mists of time. Ours has orange/red berries and masses of white flowers in early June. By pure luck we have a dog rose climbing up amongst it and the pretty pink flowers of the rose complement the Pyracantha flowers wonderfully. It is a big plant and needs regular cutting back (probably more cutting back than we actually get around to) but it has vicious spikes and needs carefully handling. It is not something that you can put through the shredder and spread on the flower beds as mulch as the thorns remain and get in the dogs’ feet.
Cotonesters are very useful as foliage throughout the year and can add that additional Christmas feel in November and December. Their long arching habit and well behaved upward facing foliage make them extremely useful in large floral arrangements for large table centrepieces, door wreaths, church archways and pedestal arrangements.
Ideally the stems should be cut fresh in the morning. You should slit the stem (about 1 inch) before conditioning for 24-48 hours in clean fresh water with flower food if you have it. Slitting the stem helps the water uptake. Even if the stem tips drop at first they will soon perk up over a 24 hour period. Refresh the water every 24 hours if you are not using immediately.
Unlike Pyracantha and Berberis, which are very spikey and need to have the spines removed before using, Cotoneaster stems are thornless and therefore much less time consuming (and painful) to work with.
If you want to get to the berries before the birds you can pick them and keep them in water for a good few weeks in a cool place. Remember to keep changing the water every few days.
Origin: According to Wikipedia Pyrancantha coccinae ranges from North Eastern Spain to Northern Iran whilst the Cotoneasters originate from areas across temperate Asia, Europe and North Africa.
Hardiness: According to the RHS, Cotoneaster ‘Cornubia’ and Pyracantha are graded as H6 (Hardy in all of UK and northern europe -20 °C to -15 °C)
We have always had great success in propagating Cotoneasters by taking hardwood cutting in the Autumn. Take about a 9 inch cutting (about a pencil thinkness) from mature wood, cutting cleanly just above a node at the top and just below a node at the bottom. Cut the stem at an angle at the top to help you remember which way up the cutting needs to be planted.
Put the cutting(s) the right way up either into a nursery bed in the ground or into a deep pot filled with a well drained, loam based compost (the deep rose flowerpots are ideal for this). You can put a number of cuttings into a single pot. The cuttings should be at least two-thirds of their length under the soil.
Water in well and place them outside where you can look after them. They will stay in the pot or ground for about 12 months before you pot them on. Just let them grow leaves and roots during the summer, watering as necessary, and then pot up in the autumn into individual pots or if the roots are big enough into the garden.
Offer any spare ones to your friends! You will have many more than you need.
Pruning in the right way at the right time is critical to maintaining the flowers and ultimately the berries.
With Pyracantha the flowers (and subsequently the berries) are formed on short spur growths on the previous year’s growth. Any new growth in mid to late summer will need to be left to mature in order to produce the next seasons flowers and berries.
With Cotoneaster ‘Cornubia’ it is the open branching structure that is so attractive and it is probably best to avoid pruning excessively other than to remove wayward or damaged branches that look out of place. If you want to reduce the size or thin out the tree we typically use the ‘one-third’ technique on many shrubs. Each year you remove one-third of the older stems leaving the majority intact. The next year you remove another one-third of the old stems (leaving any new ones) and the same again in the third year. In this way you slow reduce the size of the shrub each year but it will still flower and look good in the garden.
We haven’t managed to capture footage of the male bullfinch yet but here are a couple of clips of a female Bullfinch and Redwing enjoying the Pyracantha berries in mid-November.
RHS “Pruning” by Christopher Bricknell (ISBN 1-85732-902-3)