Anyone for (fungi) croquet? –

A wonderful and seasonal post from Julian on the spread of fungi.

This post is about a mossy croquet lawn, not really a meadow, but bear with me.

I’m guessing it’s one of the highest, and mossiest in the land, but also perhaps, the most fungally diverse?Serious gardeners, or pristine lawn devotees would be appalled by it, particularly at this time of the year, but following on from the recent wide ranging presentation by Bruce Langridge from the National Botanic Garden of Wales, for the Carmarthenshire Meadows Group, (click here to watch), I thought it would be worth featuring some of the many different mushrooms which now make this small mossy/grassy patch their home, and outline the history of this “lawn”.

Since this gives a rare insight into the ‘speed’ of colonisation of such an area of grass by grassland fungi.

When we acquired Gelli Uchaf in 1993, this area was the site of a decrepit Dutch style pole barn, complete with a thick base of years of built up dried cow/sheep manure and straw, well rotted down over time. Whilst the initial phase of building works made the main cottage uninhabitable, this is where we pitched our tents on our forays down to view the initial major building work progress, and get stuck into all the necessary jobs which we could tackle.

A couple of years later, our elder son and a school friend took the barn down during the summer holidays, (narrowly avoiding decapitating himself as one of the roof sheets crashed unexpectedly just past his ear). After we’d gradually dug out the dried manure base, to use in various locations around the developing garden, the area beneath the barn was then just raked over, and a commercial local rough grass seed mix was scattered.

Over much of this area there is therefore very little actual soil – you’d be hard pressed to stick even a hand fork in, deeper than an inch, in many places.

Many years later, probably around 2008, a hyper-mature, dying ash was removed from the Northern edge of the long bed which stretches beside the lawn to the right of the top picture. Quite soon after this was removed, mushrooms typical of honey fungus, Armillaria species, began to appear both in the neighbouring meadow and dotted around the croquet lawn, but this year they’ve formed a spectacular curving crescent from the North Western corner of the lawn, right round to nearly the North Eastern corner. Although the actual emergence of the mushrooms along this crescent has varied slightly – those to the West emerging a few days earlier than those to the East.I’m assuming this reflects slightly sunnier and warmer conditions over the more Westerly part, and that the crescent marks the limit of the ash’s root system. Most gardeners dread the mention of honey fungus, fearing doom and gloom. However things aren’t quite as bleak as some assume. To quote from the website of SASA :

Armillaria (also known as the honey fungus) is a common pathogen/saprophytic fungi found in broad-leaved woodland and mature gardens. Six species (A. borealis, A. Cepistipes, A. gallica, A. mellea, A. ostoyae and A. tabescens) commonly occur in the UK but of these only two (A. mellea and A. ostoyae) are considered to be pathogens that can infect and kill healthy trees. Identification of the separate species using traditional techniques is very difficult and even the use of modern DNA based methodologies has not lead to the development of a rapid, cost effective assay.

For more details, and images and descriptions of the different species, see Pat O’Reilly’s excellent First nature website.

It’s also interesting to reference Suzanne Simard’s groundbreaking research into the interconnectedness of plant life, and in particular trees in forests, through the many unseen fungal networks, which underpin them. Part of this work has shown how trees, sometimes even different species, are capable of resisting the attacks of Armillaria, providing they’re growing in more of a naturalistic forest, rather than the typical monoculture beloved by modern commercial forestry. Fiona has just read and listened to the ‘audible’ version of her long autobiographical book, “Finding The Mother Tree”. I tried to get going, but struggled both with her lengthy background and her interweaving of aspects of her personal life into the narrative. However, I’ve just discovered an in depth interview with her, where her work is discussed, and she managed to communicate in a much more animated style. Well worth a watch sometime, if you want to grasp how little we know about how our plants are really connecting and communicating, unseen, beneath our feet.

Or for a more succinct but equally gripping delivery, there’s her shorter TED talk, below. I hope you watch it, and find it as revelatory as I did, and if so, do pass it on to others who you think might enjoy it.

Whilst Suzanne’s work involves forests, for sure similar networks exist in undamaged (chemically and physically) grasslands, of whatever size.

The next most significant fungal species to appear in our “lawn” were the Scarlet Caterpillar Clubs, Cordyceps militaris, which I first found in our upper hay meadow in late September 2018 and later, 9 specimens in this mossy croquet lawn. Interestingly, after 3 years of finding at least one example, this year I’ve yet to see any. As the name implies, this fungus invades and consumes an underground moth larva, before fruiting with the orange club shaped structure, above, in late autumn.

Then the following year in 2019, the first Earthtongues appeared, which I first noticed in October 2019, so by my reckoning, they first fruited about 24 years after grass would have established. These score relatively highly in the CHEGD system of grassland fungi, so are presumably viewed as being quite rare.

They’ve returned each year since, and I estimate that this year, there are around 400 to 500. Although interestingly the vast majority are located in the Southern aspect of this croquet lawn, to the right below. In other words, the area which had no grass at all, and was dung covered until about 24 years ago. I should also say that, unsurprisingly but critically, this lawn has never received any chemical treatments at all. Just regular mowings throughout the year, with the clippings removed. Bruce mentioned that one of the site’s he’d found Earthtongues was in a cemetery, in front of a single gravestone, which locals explained had always had the grass cut and removed from the site – unlike the rest of the grassy areas on this site, which had been simply cut and left.

Interestingly, we’ve yet to find earthtongues anywhere else on the property.

This year, yet more fungi have appeared, some of which I’m certain are species we’ve already recorded in our upper hay meadow, though these examples are much smaller. Orange-red Fibrous waxcaps, Hygrocybe intermedia, (possibly)?

Plus initially vivid green, fading yellow, Parrot waxcaps, Hygrocybe psittacina.

Plus the more orangey-beige Meadow waxcaps, Cuphophyllus pratensis.

Add in some white coral, Clavulina cristata.

And a couple of as yet unconfirmed species, and it demonstrates how with no management other than nutrient reduction, through regular cutting and removal, and given the very dominant mossy substrate, which will clearly impact on ground level humidity and temperature, these rare mushrooms can establish. Although how the spores arrived on this site, and which factors were critical in their growth and establishment, is unknown! Albeit that it’s taken a (human) generation for this to really happen!

In addition, I even found 2 examples of star jelly. Slime mould, meteor debris or the remnants of a killed frog? Take your pick, since the jury is clearly still out on this occasionally seen, centuries old, natural phenomenon, below.

Part of the annual management has also always been removal of windblown leaves from the large oak, but in years to come I’ll try to leave this, or only take very high cuts, to avoid damage to the early season mushrooms which are popping up, from late September onwards. Who knows, the holy grail of purple coral may appear one day?

Finally, in case anyone hasn’t yet read Merlin Sheldrake’s brilliant book on fungi “Entangled Life” (even if waxcaps don’t even get a mention), here’s an interview with him, which might whet your appetite to get the book.

Written by Julian Wormald and posted 09/11/2021

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