Sunday, 8 October 2017

Happy Fungus Day!

Pic of fungi in grass

Unless you are a mycologist, you may not appreciate just how amazing and important fungi are. This weekend the British Mycological Society is seeking to raise awareness and interest in the fungal kingdom. I attended a Meet the Expert tour last week with Dr Martyn Ainsworth at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Fascinating fungi:
  • Fungi are all around us, largely hidden underground awaiting their opportunity to emerge. They spread out underground far beyond what we see on the surface. You can see evidence on Google Earth of their rings at Copenhagen Airport.
  • Fungi have been reclassified. They are neither plants nor animals. They are mobile - albeit not as mobile as animals.
  • If you want to identify a fungus, you need to identify the tree that is growing on, in or under. The fungi may be feeding off old roots underground if you can’t find the associated tree.
  • Mycologists need to develop their sense of smell. It’s a whole new world of notes like wine – although some smells are decidedly unpleasant. Truffles are irresistible to pigs because they smell of pig pheromones.
  • Fungi conduct wars on their competitors. They zap each other.
  • It is claimed that Ink Caps supplied the ink for the Magna Carta.

Gardeners asked about the feared Honey Fungus. Dr Ainsworth explained that Honey Fungus is not a problem in natural woodlands. Here, competitors keep it in check. Only the unnatural environment of modern gardens let it spread unchecked.

We also heard how some fungi work in harmony with trees and plants. Given the rate at which man is using up the world’s resources, we could end up relying heavily on fungi as a food source. Researchers still have a lot to learn on how they survive.

Pic of fungus in grass and autumn leaf fall

Dr Ainsworth is working on gaining greater protection for UK fungi. Only 10 fungi have some protection at present. Some fungi are sensitive to nitrogen. Wax Caps have declined due to grassland loss.

Could the UK could end up offering fungi their last stand? What would the mushroom-loving French would think of that? What effect will Brexit have on European fungal cooperation?

Mushrooms were on the menu in Kew’s Orangery restaurant. Let’s hope that politicians and scientists won’t let Brexit get in the way of joint European efforts on fungal conservation. Timely action is needed to secure this key food source for the future.

Key Terminology

chitin (n)
Tough, semi-transparent substance that is the main component of the exoskeletons of arthropods, such as the shells of crustaceans and outer body of insects. It is also found in the cell walls of fungi and algae.
fungarium (n)
Collection of preserved specimens of fungus.
lignum (n)
Woody tissue, tissue of a plant.
mycelium (n), (pl. mycelia)
Vegetative part of a fungus, consisting of a thread-like to felt-like mass.
mycologist (n)
Specialist in mycology; person who studies fungi and fungal life.
mycology (n)
Branch of biology concerned with the study of fungi, including their biochemical and genetic properties, taxonomy, use as a food source and for medicinal purposes and toxicity.
spore (n)
General term for the reproductive unit of a fungus.
symbiosis (n)
Non-parasitic relationship between living organisms to mutual benefit.

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