Category Archives: London Fungi

The Most Unpopular Tree in Britain?

Sycamore (Acer pseudoplanatus) leaves with Tar Spot (Rhytisma acerinum) fungus

Sycamore (Acer pseudoplanatus) leaves with Tar Spot (Rhytisma acerinum) fungus

When I was walking through Cherry Tree Wood last week I noticed, in amongst the Hornbeam and the Oak, a solitary Sycamore tree. As is usual in these parts, the leaves were covered in the round black scars of Tar Spot fungus, which occurs mostly when the tree is young and shaded by older plants. The fungus makes the leaves look as if a Frost Giant has squeezed each one between an icy finger and thumb. It is almost as if the tree is being punished for its very existence, because the more I read about Sycamore, the more I realise how unpopular it is.

Sycamore 12Sycamore is a member of the Maple family, as its leaf shape shows. At the moment, it is classified as a neophyte, which means a plant that was introduced after 1500. However, there is a name for the Sycamore in Scottish Gaelic (‘Fiorr chrann’) which suggests that the tree was present much earlier than that. However long it has been here, it is a prolific self-seeder, and if you want an instant forest in your back garden, there is a good chance that Sycamore will oblige.

Sycamore 'Helicopters' (By Didier Descouens (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Sycamore ‘Helicopters’
(By Didier Descouens (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

For me, autumn would not be complete without these little whirligigs spiralling down from the trees like some kind of James Bond flying device. But it’s safe to say that not everyone shares my enthusiasm. Take John Evelyn, seventeenth century writer, for example:

” The Sycamor…is much more in reputation for its shade than it deserves: for the Hony-dew leaves, which fall early …turn to a Mucilage and noxious insects, and putrifie with the first moisture of the season: so as they contaminate and marr our Walks; and are therefore by my consent, to be banish’d from all curious Gardens and Avenues.” (Quotation from Flora Britannica by Richard Mabey).

This ‘mucilage’ is likely to be the main culprit for the problem of ‘leaves on the line’, which slows up trains every autumn. And the ‘Hony-Dew’ is produced by the extraordinary number of aphids who feed on the tree. The combination of the two can drive gardeners to distraction. Take this posting to the RHS website for example:

“It rains leaves and now sap and insects of all kinds emerge from it. The sap is everywhere and makes all the garden furniture sticky. Birds roost in it and we have piles of you know what everywhere. So bad now that my grandson is not allowed to play in the garden as its just a smelly, sticky nightmare!”

Oh dear. I can see why the Sycamore is not everybody’s favourite.

However, it can be a truly magnificent tree, growing up to 35 metres tall and living for 400 years. The Martyrs’ Tree in Tolpuddle, Dorset, is a Sycamore. In the 1830’s the local farm labourers used to meet under its branches, and formed the first agricultural labourer’s union in England, subsequently being transported to Australia for their pains. It is said that George Loveless, their leader, took a leaf from the tree with him, pressed between the pages of his Bible.

The Martyrs Tree at Tolpuddle, Dorset (Simon Palmer [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Martyrs Tree at Tolpuddle, Dorset (Simon Palmer [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The insects complained about by the gardener above are, for me, one of the Sycamore’s strong points. Where there are aphids there will be lacewings and ladybirds, blue tits and bats. Richard Mabey points out that the Sycamore has the highest insect productivity by weight of any common tree: 35.8 grams per square metre, compared with 27.76 grams for Oak. This is especially useful in urban areas, where alternative sources of insect food might be hard to come by for airborne feeders such as House Martins and Swifts.

In the spring, the flowers are a good source of nectar and pollen for all manner of pollinating insects.

Sycamore Flowers (Albert Bridge [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Sycamore Flowers (Albert Bridge [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

The leaves are also food for a variety of moths.

Caterpillar of the Sycamore Moth(Acronicta aceris) (By Anagoria (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Caterpillar of the Sycamore Moth(Acronicta aceris) (By Anagoria (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

The Plumed Prominent moth (Ptilophora plumigera) (By Gyorgy Csoka, Hungary Forest Research Institute, Bugwood.org [CC-BY-3.0-us (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Plumed Prominent moth (Ptilophora plumigera) (By Gyorgy Csoka, Hungary Forest Research Institute, Bugwood.org [CC-BY-3.0-us (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

In Wales, the wood of the Sycamore is used to make a Love Spoon, which is normally carved from a single piece of wood by a young man to give to his beloved. This was an indication to the bride-to-be’s father that the suitor was competent at woodworking, and was therefore likely to be a good provider, plus the time and effort involved indicated that the lover was serious, not some Jack-the-Lad.

A Love-spoon (By José-Manuel Benito (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

A Love-spoon (By José-Manuel Benito (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

For some people, the Sycamore is a ‘weed’, the only tree, to my knowledge, to be labelled in this way. Its ‘alien’ origins, its profligacy, its ‘slimy’ leaves and its way of attracting insects have led to a very British disdain. Poppycock, I say. We should be proud of this magnificent tree, and grateful for its shade, its generosity, its graceful flowers and its helicopter seeds. We need more sturdy, long-lived trees like the Sycamore. They help to prevent flooding by soaking up excess water. They purify our air and help to reduce the heat of the city. And with their lifespans of hundreds of years, they provide a way of both remembering our personal transcience and linking us to the history of those who went before us.

 

 

 

 

A Festival of Fungi

Sulphur Tuft (hypholoma fasciculare)

Sulphur Tuft (hypholoma fasciculare)

Dear readers, last week I went for a walk in Coldfall Wood. I was not in a good mood, and scuffled through the dead leaves, occasionally using very bad language as I slipped in the mud. However, it didn’t take long before I realised that I was being watched.

Autumn in Coldfall Wood 027A rather anxious squirrel was peering at me from behind a log, tail twitching. He catapulted me right out of my self-absorption, as I watched him leaping from branch to branch with his mouth stuffed full of leaves. I soon spotted his sleeping quarters, high in an oak tree, and realised that he was preparing for hibernation, and could do without me interrupting him, thank you very much.

Autumn in Coldfall Wood 018Well, after this rodentine intervention I felt much better, and actually woke up to what was happening all around me. Which was that Coldfall Wood was positively busting out with fungi. As is usual, once I’d noticed one kind, I found them every where.

Firstly, I noticed rings of rather non-descript mushrooms emerging from the leaf-litter.

Clouded Funnel (Clitocybe nebularis)

Clouded Funnel (Clitocybe nebularis)

Something has been feasting on these mushrooms – every single one has munch-marks around the edges, and I’m sure if I visited the wood at night I would be able to see the mice, rats and squirrels having a fungus feast.

Clouded Funnel Clitocybe nebularis 1There is something deeply mysterious about fungi. The way that they spend so much of their lives under the ground and only burst forth into fruiting bodies in  the autumn, when everything else is closing down, fills me a kind of awe.  Until this visit to the woods, I have never given fungi a second thought, but now I was overwhelmed by their bounty.

I remembered a lecture I’d attended by a mycologist, a man with a pepper-and-salt beard and leather elbow patches on his tweed jacket, who told us that fungi were more closely related to animals than plants, that they were responsible for much of the fertility of the soil and that their lives were irrevocably entwined with those of the plants that we rely upon. And yet, he said, until recently fungi had been so neglected that there was not a category for them on the Red List of endangered species.

‘Fungi are becoming extinct before we even know that they exist’, he said. Of course, this is true of many other species, but these invaluable organisms do seem to suffer from a particular level of human indifference. And yet, we ignore them at our peril.

Sulphur Tuft 6Scientists have shown that fungi have a special relationship with plants, known as mycorrhiza. Fungi colonise the roots of their host plant. The fungi receive carbohydrate from the plant, in the form of sucrose and glucose. The plants receive water and minerals, especially phosphorus. The result is that the plants are much less affected by drought, are more able to take up nutrients even in poor soils, and are less affected by toxicity. We are only just beginning to understand these associations, although they have been known about for over a hundred years.

Sulphur Tuft 2At the base of many of the hornbeams, Sulphur Tuft bubbled forth like so much toffee. This is one of our commonest British toadstools, and is said to have a ‘hot, acrid’ taste, though as it is also poisonous I decided it was best not to try this out.

Candlesnuff Fungus (Xylaria hypoxylon)

Candlesnuff Fungus (Xylaria hypoxylon)

Not all fungi are big and obvious. Take Candlesnuff Fungus, for example. It looks like a little field of white-tipped black candles growing all over this piece of fallen wood.

Trametes versicolour - Turkeytail

Trametes versicolour – Turkeytail

Turkeytail is a kind of bracket fungus, which are amongst the most important agents of wood decay, breaking down the cellulose of dead trees and returning the nutrients to the soil. There has been a lot of coppicing in Coldfall Wood during the past year, and so there are lots of treestumps for the fungi to digest. Furthermore, an ingredient called Polysaccharide-K, which is found in Turkeytail, is said to be potentially useful in the treatment of cancer, though there is no medically approved evidence that the fungus itself is efficacious against the disease.

Where the trunks of the coppiced hornbeam trees were stacked up, they were spotted all over with Black Bulgar fungus.

Black Bulgar - Bulgaria inquinans

Black Bulgar – Bulgaria inquinans

What an interesting fungus this is, with its cup-shaped fruiting bodies of velvety brown and shiny black spores. These spores have been used in the dyeing industry, and I am not surprised – the colour is intense, and I’m sure it would stain very satisfactorily. The tree trunks had only been cut down this year, so it was interesting to me how quickly they had been colonised – practically every single log had a small colony of Black Bulgar swarming over it.

As I walked back through the woods, I discovered two more beauties.

Peppery Milkcap (Lactarius piperatus)

Peppery Milkcap (Lactarius piperatus)

This mushroom was all on its own, glowing creamy-white amongst the leaf-litter. It is said to be edible, although the process is something of a palaver, according to my ‘Illustrated Guide to Mushrooms and Toadstools’ from Dorling-Kindersley:

‘L.piperatus can be treated to make it edible. This involves thorough salting, followed by marinating. Prolonged frying of chopped up cubes also more or less removes the acrid taste’.

Hmm. I don’t think I’ll bother.

Jack O Lantern (Omphalotus illudens)

Jack O Lantern (Omphalotus olearius)

Now, I am only a mycological beginner, but if I’m right about the identification of the mushroom  above, it’s one of the few luminous fungi in the British Isles. My hesitation is because this species is normally found in groups, and as far as I can see there are just two fungi growing together on the trunk of this oak tree in the Everglades area of the wood. But if it is a Jack O Lantern, this is what it will look like after dark:

Omphalotus_olearius_33857So, in the space of a few hours, my mood has changed from disgruntlement to mycophilia. I have been bedazzled by the range of forms that fungi take, and gobsmacked at my ignorance of their beauty and variety. This may be my first post on fungi, but I doubt that it will be the last.

PS. Identifying fungi to the species level is extremely daunting. They are individually variable, and many species can only be identified by taking a spore print, or by using a microscope. On my walk I was armed only with my camera, so I have tried my best to be accurate, but am very happy to be contradicted if you feel that I’ve got anything wrong. Just add a comment, and I’d be delighted to learn from you.