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Another group of organisms much more apparent now, are the fungi. Many produce their fruiting bodies in the autumn, so if you can get out before the frosts, there are rewarding kinds to find. The most recognisable are the mushrooms and toadstools which display radiating gills beneath the cap when you turn them over. The whole structure is produced for spore dispersal; the spores themselves are manufactured on the outer wall of the gills and are shot just far enough from the surface to fall down between the gills sheets. To allow this to happen the gills must always grow plumb vertical, whatever happens to the cap. Once spores fall beneath the cap they will be carried away in the slightest breath of wind.
If you take a cap and place it gills down on either a white or black sheet of paper leaving it overnight, you will be able to collect the spores. If there are no draughts (pop an upturned tumbler over the top) they form a spore print, which can be preserved by spraying with artist pastel fixative or hair spray.
You will not do the fungal population any harm by collecting specimens, nor will you be at risk if any of them are poisonous, provided you wash your hands after handling and do not eat any.
What we commonly see of fungi is the part of their structure which sheds spores, the fruiting body; the main fungus is made of fine strands called hyphae that make a complicated mat within the material they are feeding on, called a mycelium, which is virtually invisible unless you grow the fungus by itself on an agar plate.
Besides the gill bearing fruiting bodies there are many more kinds to find. The black spots on Sycamore leaves are caused by a fungus appropriately named tar spot (Rhytisma acerinum).
A completely different fruiting body can be found on dead tree trunks (particularly Ash). They are brown or black hemispheres, completely dry to touch, protruding from the bark, and are often called King Alfred’s cakes (Daldinia concentrica). Again the common name is wonderfully appropriate if the legends are to be believed. You can also see the reason for part of the Latin name too if the fruiting body is broken open (see illustration). Each year a new layer grows on the outside. This contains the spore chambers from which the spores are shot when they have matured.
On the old stumps of trees that are now often moss covered, you will be able to find another fungus fruiting body called candle snuff (Xylaria hypoxylon) presumably because it looks like the wick of an extinguished candle. It is also called dead men’s fingers; how appropriate that is, remains to be seen!
Another different kind of fungus it should be easy to find is Coral spot (Nectria cinnabarina). The fungus is a weak parasite, attacking living tissue on the smaller branches of trees. These often drop to the ground when they are weakened and so you can find small twigs and branches covered in pin head sized spots of pink (initially) turning to a dark red when spores are released.
But don’t stop there; there are jelly ear fungi, puffballs, bracket fungi, and many more fascinations to be found!
If you visit www.first-nature.com/fungi you can find out much more, including the colour of spores!
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