Mushrooms and Toadstools

by Paul Nichol

Banner Image: The Sickener © Andrew Denley

Autumn is the time for fungi around Ullswater, the mushrooms and toadstools that seem to suddenly appear in woodlands or on our lawns over night.

What are Mushrooms and Toadstools?

They are neither plant nor animal and have their own kingdom in the living world "The Fungi". Some features they share with plants e.g they grow on the spot and don't move around and their cell structure is plant like. Some they share with animals e.g they cannot make their own food like plants do. Some are annuals in that they last only for a few weeks and then disappear others are perennials and continue year after year.

So what is the difference between a mushroom and a toadstool?

It depends on what you have heard or been taught but in reality there is no difference, mushrooms are not distinct from toadstools. A common misconception is that mushrooms you can eat and toadstools are poisonous so you can't. It is true that some fungi are poisonous, some dangerously so and have names like The Death Cap, Destroying Angel or Funeral Bell. However, by far the vast majority you will come across are inedible as they are either hard and tough or very hot or bitter. Some of course are delicious such as the Cep, Chanterelle, Morel and Field Mushroom along with many others. However, you have to be able to identify them - there is no simple test that will tell you.

Where and how do they grow?

The best place to see a range of fungi is in woodland. Here you will find the greatest diversity. However, fungi can be found nearly anywhere, for example in unimproved grasslands, a habitat we are blessed with here in Cumbria. These are grasslands you find on fellsides and strangely enough in cemeteries and churchyards. These grasslands don't receive any chemicals whatsoever and support a rich diversity of often brightly coloured mushrooms in the autumn.

The mushroom that you see maybe a temporary thing but it has developed from an underground mycelium which is there all year round hidden in the leaf litter or fallen logs. The mycelium is a mass of entangled white threads that is feeding on the dead leaves in the soil or the dead wood of a tree. This is the feeding part of the fungus while the mushroom is the reproductive part and is responsible for producing tens of millions of microscopic spores. The mycelium spreads through the dead leaves or wood, gradually digesting it.

Scarlet Elf Cup © Andrew Denley

Fungi as natures recyclers

The existence of life depends on the process of recycling and fungi play an essential role in this. They are superb "rotters" or "decomposers", recycling the elements which are involved in the construction of living matter be it animal or plant. As fungi feed, they dissolve and digest dead matter, largely plant material, breaking down dead leaves etc. As they do so they release back into the environment the various elements which made up the leaves. These elements are then available to be reused to support new life. This type of feeding is called saprobic and the result is that dead material does not accumulate but is gradually recycled and disappears.

Where to find fungi in the Ullswater Valley

The Ullswater valley provides opportunities to visit a range of habitats and discover the fungi that have established and grow there. The habitat that produces the greatest diversity of mushrooms & toadstools are the woodlands so when walking in some of the woodlands in the valley particularly those of Glencoyne, Aira Force, Gowbarrow Park and Low Wood alongside Brotherswater look out for some of the following which are found there. Many woodland fungi form associations with particular trees or will only feed on particular types of dead wood others aren’t particular and are to be found in a variety of woodlands.

Fly Agaric © Commons

If there are birch trees around look out for “The Fly Agaric” a poisonous and iconic fungus having a red cap with white spots usually in childrens books it has a frog sitting on top, also an associate of birch is “The Brown Birch Bolete” a large fleshy toadstool with a sponge like tissue underneath the cap. Growing on dead standing trees or fallen trunks two bracket fungi are often found “The Razor Strop” and “Hoof Bracket”. Oak trees have their own fungi including a relative of the Fly Agaric which grows out of the litter beneath the tree this is “The Death Cap” not a common fungus but even more toxic than the Fly Agaric, recognise it from its olive cap. On fallen boughs and branches you might see “Batchelors Buttons” black rubbery discs growing on the bark. A strange fungus found to grow on dead Ash wood is the aptly named “King Alfred’s Cakes” looking just like a small burnt teacake.

Hoof Bracket © Stuart Colgate
Batchelors Buttons © Commons
King Alfred's Cakes © Paul Nichol

Some common fungi which are not too particular where they grow include the bright yellow “Sulphur Tuft” which always grows in tufts on dead wood of any kind it is a very important decomposer of wood. Often growing with it on dead stumps or fallen logs is “The Turkey’s Tail” a thin bracket fungus growing in tiers and recognised by the rings of different colours on the top.

Emerging form the leaf litter will be found brightly coloured mushrooms with caps displaying a range of colours from red, through purple to shades of yellow, these are “The Brittlegills” and have interesting names like The Sickener (see banner image) and Charcoal Burner.

A summertime bracket to be seen growing on a variety of trees is “Chicken of the Woods”. Tiers of bright yellow shelf like brackets emerge from the side of trees from July onwards.

Chicken of the Woods © Paul Nichol

If your walking is not in woodlands but more fellside then later in the autumn from late October into November is the best time to see the family of quite small brightly coloured mushrooms growing amongst short grass. These are “The Waxcaps” and they come in a range of stunning colours but they are particular in that they only grow in short grass that has been grazed by sheep and which is completely free of chemicals. If you look carefully you may see growing with the waxcaps a small orange club shaped fungus about 3-4 cms high, this is “The Scarlet Caterpillar Club” and underground in the soil it is found to be growing from the pupa of a moth which it is feeding on.

A woodland fungus which is only to be found in winter and early spring is “The Scarlet Elf Cup” (image above) look for it on moss that is growing on fallen wet logs.

by Paul Nichol

Ballerina Waxcap © Commons


P. Nichol. 2021. An Initial Guide to the Identification of Mushrooms & Toadstools (4th Edition)

B. Spooner & P. Roberts 2005 Fungi (The New Naturalist Library) published by Collins

The Journal “Field Mycology” published by Elsevier

Cumbria Biodiversity Data Centre (CBDC).

Facebook. Cumbria Fungi group

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