A Surprise in the Cemetery

Giant puffball mushrooms (Calvatia gigantea)

Dear Readers, I am so attuned to looking for litter in our local open spaces that when I first saw this collection of puffball fungi growing in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery, my first thought was ‘who dumped a lot of bits of polystyrene?’ But fortunately, for once this is something entirely natural. Giant puffballs can grow to 4kg in size but these were a lot smaller, and had already been extensively nibbled by something or other – small rodents such as mice and squirrels will often eat puffballs, and I suspect that foxes (of which the cemetery has an abundance) wouldn’t be averse to a mushroomy snack either.

Puffballs are edible, and, fried in butter, they are a delicious addition to an English Breakfast. But, as someone had already been eating these I decided to leave them. Hopefully the critters need them more than I do.


Puffballs reproduce by issuing forth a ridiculous number of spores (7 x 10 to the power of 12 according to Wikipedia), which come out of the fungus when it splits, hence the name.

Photo One by By Kalyanvarma - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18500829

Puffball producing spores (Photo One)

There is something so mysterious about fungi, the way that they work unseen, sometimes for years, and then produce these strange fruiting bodies before disappearing again. We are learning more and more about the way that they work in harmony with plants, helping them to absorb nutrients and water, forming a communication network, and breaking down otherwise indigestible material. And yet, they are largely ignored when we talk about endangered species, and it was only in 2013 that fungi were included on the IUCN Red list. Just as we are only scratching the surface of understanding the intricate relationships between bacteria and our own bodies, so we still have very little comprehension of the complexity of the links between fungi and other species. All the more reason to stop messing about with the environment, I’d have thought.

And then, as we turn to leave the cemetery, I hear a crow calling overhead. Crows have a very particular call when they are mobbing something – even though I don’t speak crow, it’s such a clear ‘call to action’ that it always makes me look up. This time, a single crow had taken objection to a sparrowhawk, and there was a fine dog-fight going on.

Crow to the left, sparrowhawk on the right

Crow to the right, sparrowhawk to the left

The crow’s calls didn’t go unanswered – another bird, probably his/her mate, came barrelling in, and between them they chased the sparrowhawk off. I have seen more exciting encounters by listening for excited crows and then looking to see what they’re worried about than I can count – it’s often a bird of prey  but it can also be a heron, or, one one occasion, a poor tawny owl who appeared to be trying to get some sleep. What an excellent tactic for moving predators on, though, and what an example of team work, though I do sometimes feel sorry for the subject of all that cawing and buffeting. 

You can hear the crow alarm call below. Something to listen out for!

2 thoughts on “A Surprise in the Cemetery

  1. Anne

    An interesting walk you had! I am frequently surprised by the number of small birds that mob a predatory bird until it moves away far enough for them to feel safe within their territory once more.


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