A few weeks ago as the hours of daylight were gradually lengthening, we were cheered by signs of spring growth through the decomposing leaf litter. The leaf tips of Lords and Ladies (Arum maculatum), have been pushing up since the end of December, as well as the smaller spikes of bluebell leaves. First flowers are late this year, compared to the past few years. Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) flowered on 2 February, 11 days later than last year, and daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) appeared on 20 February – 17 days later than last year.
With few flowers in sight we have carried out surveys of common fungi and the distribution of these common species throughout the garden. Fungi forays are generally associated with autumn – the most productive months for larger fungi such as mushrooms and toadstools. However there are many attractive species present through all seasons and a search early in the new year can be rewarding.
During our recent search we found the most widely spread species was candle-snuff fungus (Xylaria hypoxylon) also called candlestick fungus or stag’s horn fungus. This is a black fungus with white-tipped forks (or antlers) and is found throughout the garden woodland areas and hedgerows on stumps and decaying wood on log piles.
Bracket fungi included smoky bracket (Bjerkandera adusta) and the more frequent turkey tail (Trametes versicolor), both common wood-rotting species which we found on tree stumps, at the base of living trees and on the log piles scattered around the garden, sometimes alongside the chillingly named deadman’s fingers (Xylaria polymorpha).
Other fungal features of the woodpiles include the curiously named yellow brain (Tremella mesenterica), King Alfred’s cakes or crampballs (Daldinia concentrica), and, similar to King Alfred’s cakes but smaller and lacking concentric zonation inside the stroma, Annulohypoxylon multiforme which is usually found silver birch.
A species commonly associated with elder (Sambucus nigra) on dead and decaying branches is the fleshy/jelly looking jelly ear fungus (Auricularia auriculae-judae) that can be seen on some of our living elder shrubs as well as amongst several log piles. This is an edible fungi and apparently very tasty when fried (note, it is best not to eat fungi unless an expert has helped you to select them due to the risk of mistakenly picking a fatally toxic one!). I’ve never been tempted but our resident squirrels are rather partial to jelly ear and have been recently witnessed in the meadow dining on take-away jelly ear.
A new record for the garden, an uncommon and a very attractive species, is cobalt crust (Terana caerulea) growing on chestnut fencing in the meadow
One more to mention – found at the end of December is the exquisite little leaf parachute (Marasmius epiphyllus), found on a rotting plane tree leaf during a fungi survey in December.
These species of fungi are neither unusual nor rare, most being common wood decaying species that can be found amongst log piles and dead branches and twigs that are left lying on the ground. These and other fungi play a vital role in the ecology of woodland and hedgerows, not only recycling nutrients from decaying wood and leaves but also providing food for many invertebrates and other animals – not only for squirrels. Some of the moths recorded in the Wildlife Garden such as Nemapogon varietella are known to live off bracket fungi. Log piles can take many forms and shapes and those we have created throughout the garden encourage fungi and detritivores such as woodlice, springtails, slugs, scarab beetles, spiders and other invertebrates as well as providing shelter for small mammals and amphibians.
For more information on fungi in the Wildlife Garden you can read Brian Spooner’s article in evolve magazine (October 2016, issue no. 29). An article on Fungi in the Wildlife Garden by Brian Spooner will also be published in the London Naturalist at the end of this year.
With thanks to Frances for the survey work and supplying the photographs. Frances was one of 10 Museum volunteers nominated for Making a Difference in Kensington and Chelsea volunteer awards. Five of the 10 volunteers work in the Wildlife Garden. Tom Thomas, Noreen Musikant, Elza Blankenbergs, Rhiannon Dowling and Frances Dismore. Each were presented a Make a Difference Award at the RB Kensington and Chelsea Awards in November.