Ancient woodland has been continually wooded since at least 1600AD, and some may even link back to the original wildwood that covered the UK around 10,000 years ago, after the last Ice Age. There are ancient beech woods in the Chiltern Hills which I explore at all times of the year. They are particularly lovely in the spring and autumn when the colours are vibrant with the changing season.
Beech trees are very stately, their smooth grey trunks, like cathedral columns rising from the leafy forest floor, often only spreading into a canopy dozens of feet up in the air. The foliage glows warm green in the spring against a blue sky, and in the autumn turns golden before the leaves fall and add to the deep litter on the floor.
When men go into a forest to chop it down, they see trees, and powered by burning the carbon of trees that grew 200 million years ago, smash their way through to bring down the trees and gain the timber. In an ancient wood, beneath the vast wheels and metal tracks they are also destroying an amazing complexity of life that thrives under the surface of the forest floor, and this is one of the reasons why ancient woods are so precious. It is also where the mystery dwells.
I have a favourite beech wood atop the Chiltern ridge which is reached by a small path running steeply uphill from a nice country pub. This wood is not only very lovely, with it’s open, leafy forest floor and towering columns of trees, but very rich in fungi. At first glance, the floor seems rather devoid of life as not much grows beneath mature beech, but look closer, particularly in the Autumn, and you will find all manner of colourful and exotic fungal life among the leaf litter. In parts it is carpetted with delicious black Horns of Plenty, stumps covered with little bonnets and small common puffballs, innocuous looking greyish Death Caps and occasional cepes and chanterelles (as well as many small brown jobs).[singlepic id=195 w=180 h=120 float=left] [singlepic id=209 w=180 h=120 float=middle] [singlepic id=199 w=120 h=180 float=right] (Chanterelle, left; Common Bonnet, middle; Magpie Ink Cap)
Southern England has had a very dry, warm autumn especially during the peak mushroom season of late September to early November which worried some farmers (a bit), made it a lot easier to walk along Chiltern forest paths as the usual slushy mud was absent, and caused a near absence of fungi. On a foray I joined in October in my area we found almost nothing – a few ‘small brown jobs’ if you looked hard, but all of the normal exotic fecundity was absent: it was a disappointing day, so I went for a run instead.
The dry weather continued until the middle of November, when some heavy showers moistened the soil. Leaves were still on many of the trees, and a foxglove was flowering in my garden – a flower which would normally be long gone by October.[singlepic id=218 w=180 h=120 float=middle]
I kept visiting these woods and on November 16th, things began to get interesting again, but the fungi were a quite different range from last year: if 12 species, only 2 matched! These were funnel caps (some very large) and common bonnets (picture above) and two edible species, the Wood Blewett (below left) which is purplish and oyster mushrooms, below right.
Mushroom do not just grow from a seed, like green plants, but are the fruiting bodies of the main plant, which is the ‘mycellium’. This is a network of fibres, or hyphae, that can be absolutely enormous, spreading over acres of forest floor, or very localised on a single tree stump, or anything in between. Therefore, underneath the leaf litter on this beech forest floor is an amazing complexity of intertwining fungus hyphae of many different species, the overall mass of which is much, much greater than that of the mushrooms and toadstools that we see on the surface from time to time. Also, whilst the fruiting bodies are ephemeral, the underground plant, or mycelium, may be as old as the forest itself.
In fact, fungi are critical to a forest’s health as the trees grow in symbiosis with them. The roots of many trees are ‘infected’ with the fungi around them, and this seems to benefit both organisms, helping the tree gain nutriants and possible water. So a healthy ancient forest is one in which many species depend upon each other for their survival, not only in predator-prey relationships, but as symbionts.
The colourful and varied fungi shown here are manifestations of the real forest mystery that lies unseen beneath our feet and is much too complex and mysterious for us to competely understand. Thus I will keep visiting the forest during the autumn to see what is fruiting at any time, possibly finding something delicious for supper (only taking what I can eat), and always enjoying the beauty of the forest.
If you want to find out more about fungi and experience the delight of finding these ephemeral beauties, locate the nearest fungus group on the internet. In this area, we have the Bucks Fungus Group which can be found at http://www.bucksfungusgroup.org.uk/