Friday, 18 July 2008

#50 It's fungus season !

Australia's main fungus season extends between mid autumn and mid winter, so is nearing an end this year. But smaller numbers of fungi will keep appearing in moist conditions right through til late spring, and of course, it is possible to stumble upon fungi throughout the entire year. I'm always on the lookout for these fascinating life forms.

Here, I will outline a brief guide to the different types of fungi that are commonly found, in an attempt to shed some light on the structure of fungi for novices.

When I'm wandering bush trails, or picnicking in parks or enjoying public gardens, I can often be seen down on all fours peering up the skirts of mushrooms. That's because it is necessary to check out the fertile surface of the fungus to determine in which category it belongs.

The major part of a fungus is not the "mushroom" or "toadstool" we see in the field, but the largely unseen microscopic threads, called hyphae, weaving their way through the substrate (soil, wood, or other dead or living organisms). A mass of hyphae is called a mycelium.

The mycelium of a fungus is responsible for nutrition and producing fruit bodies. The fruit body is the fungus we see in the field, and its main function is to produce spores for reproduction.

Spores are produced on the fertile surface of the fungus which varies greatly and can take the form of gills, pores, spines, folds, clubs, gelatinous blobs, and more.

The Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria) is a
poisonous introduced fungus


The agarics have gills, are usually fleshy, and have a cap covering the spore-bearing layer. This is indeed the stereotyped structure we would call a "mushroom", but not all agarics have stems, and can vary tremendously in structure, size and habit.

Orange Fan (Anthracophylum archeri) and Splitgill (Schizophyllum commune) are common examples of gilled fungi that differ from the typical "mushroom" appearance.

The fertile surface of a bolete is made up of pores


Boletes are "mushroom-like" in general appearance, but instead of gills, the fertile surface consists of pores. The fleshy cap contains tubes which are downward facing and open at the base. These openings are called "pores". The spores will be released from these pore openings.

A spine fungus, Hydnum repandum

Spine fungi

The fertile surface in the group is made up of spines or teeth instead of gills or pores. Some are mushroom-shaped (as Hydnum repandum above), either fleshy or tough and leathery, while others form closely adhering crusts (eg Mycoacia subceracea) on the undersides of logs and branches.

A stemless bracket fungi belonging to
Polyporus group


This group includes the leathery, tough or woody brackets, as well as mushroom-like fungi and crusts that have pores or woody gill-like plates instead of the soft gill or pore structure of agarics or boletus.

Some will have stems (eg Red-staining Polypore, Amauroderma rude), but many will consist of a bracket or fan-shaped woody body adhered to dead or living wood (eg White Punk, Laetiporus portentosus). Some brackets will be thin, whilst others will be many centimetres thick.

A puffball breaks the surface of bitumen


There are several groups contained in the puffball fungi category. Soft, simple puffballs are common in grasslands and forests, with some preferring compacted areas like roadside verges. Spores are contained in a "skin" appearing as a ball-like structure. When mature, the outer skin punctures, breaks, or falls away to expose the spores to the elements. Spores are distributed either by wind, rain, running water or animal movement.

Variations within the puffball group are Earth Stars, which have a double layer of tissue, the outer layer of which splits to expose the central puffball containing the spores. There are also hard-skinned puffballs and stalked puffballs.

A very pretty "coral" fungus

Coral and club fungi

Coral fungi include simple or branched clubs as well as large complex coral-like structures. Most species grow on the ground, and the fertile tissue covers all but the stem.

I have seen coral fungi growing in soil ranging from swampy, moist rainforest, alpine grasslands to dry woodland, in just about all the colours of the rainbow.

Plectania campylospora, Brown Forest Cup

Cup fungi

The cup fungi form a large group that contains species in which the fertile layer is cup-shaped or flat to convex. The spores are contained on the inner or upper surface of the fungus.

Cups can be stalked as Brown Forest Cup (Plectania campylospora), or ground-hugging as Aleurina ferruginea.

A bird's-nest fungus, Cyathus stercoreus

Bird's-nest fungi

These are tiny fungi fruiting bodies that are typically shaped like a bird's nest. They produce their spores in hard-skinned packages, called peridioles, which are exposed to the weather when the top of the "nest" breaks open. Generally, bird's-nest fungi grow on herbivore dung or rotting wood, and have the spore-containing peridioles distributed by raindrops splashing them out of the "nest".

Two of my bird's-nest fungi observations can be viewed here: Nidula emodensis and Cyathus stercoreus.

Auricularia cornea is a jelly fungus

Jelly fungi

Jelly fungi are gelatinous in texture and appearance. They have a very high water content, and are usually found on wood or as parasites of other fungi. The fertile tissue covers the greater part of the surface in convoluted forms, but only the lower surface of bracket forms.

Toothed Jelly Fungus, (Pseudohydnum gelatinosum) is a bracket-like fungus, and has firm spines on the under surface which collapse into a gelatinous blob with age. Other jelly fungi take the form of odd blobs and folds, often spreading in rows along rotting timber.

Aseroe rubra, Starfish Stinkhorn, and "eggs"

Stinkhorn fungi

Stinkhorns are a distinctive group of fungi having bizarre forms accompanied by strong, unpleasant odours. The fruting bodies develop in egg-like sacs that are ruptured by the spore-bearing receptacle as it rapidly expands at maturity.

The spore-bearing gleba is a foul-smelling brown to greenish-brown slime that is eagerly consumed by flies and other insects, which in turn, distribute the spores.

These strange and often offensive fungi will pop up in mulched gardens and lawns, creating an intriguing display. I have catalogued some of my stinkhorn finds here.

As you can see, fungi are not just your average "mushroom". Observing and studying fungi can be a very rewarding and fascinating hobby. It is predicted that the majority of Australia's fungi have not yet been studied, so it is quite likely that amateur fungi enthusiasts could play an important role in recording new species.

Further reading:

Australian Fungi Blog

Australian National Botanic Gardens - Fungi



Mosura said...

Some great photos you've used to illustrate. I've been trying to find some Bird's-nest fungi for about six years without success. Maybe tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

This is a really useful introduction ... easy to understand and entertaining to read.
Judith aka "jj"

Gaye from the Hunter said...

hi Mosura,

I have a paddock behind my yard with cattle grazing. I find this a great place to find bird's-nest fungi, particularly Cyathus stercoreus. I have also found a second species on cow dung in the paddock, which I have not yet identified.

One has to really be focused on the dung to spot them as they are so small.

The tiny furry Nidula emodensis I found in the New England National Park on the thinest twig was a fabulous find, with interesting detail.

Good luck with your bird's-nest hunting.


Gaye from the Hunter said...

hi jj, and thank you. When I first became interested in fungi several years ago, it was all just a blur, so confusing was it. I hope my summary will be of use to others just becoming interested in fungi.


Denis Wilson said...

Hi Gaye
Great to see you back posting such good material.

Gaye from the Hunter said...

hi Denis,

thanks. Over the past couple of months I have been away several times, and been otherwise occupied when at home, so didn't post at all rather than try to make my posts hurried. Now I have the time and inclination to give my nature postings attention, so you will be seeing some more of my local observations.


Gouldiae said...

G'day Gaye,
A wonderful post. A great introduction on Fungi families for the likes of me. Very dry around here at present. I walked a couple of usually moist gullies the other day and didn't see a trace of Fungi.

Gaye from the Hunter said...

hi Gouldiae,

thanks. Fungi are few and far between around here just at the moment too. I went for a rainforest walk in the Barringtons two weeks ago, and also didn't see many fungi, which was disappointing and surprising.

But, they also will pop up at unexpected times, and it is always great to stumble upon fungi when not expecting them.