Enjoying the glory of autumn with a foray into our fungal undergrowth

Fungal Foray at Endcliffe Park: Ros Hancock looking at bracket fungi on a tree stump
Fungal Foray at Endcliffe Park: Ros Hancock looking at bracket fungi on a tree stump

Rain could not deter a band of enthusiasts determined to investigate the weird and wonderful fungi that have sprung to life in a Sheffield park

As the October nights close in and the weather turns grey, there’s always a public appetite for weirdness in Sheffield woodlands.

Fungal Foray at Endcliffe Park: shaggy scaly cap mushrooms by a large ash tree

Fungal Foray at Endcliffe Park: shaggy scaly cap mushrooms by a large ash tree

“This is known as candle snuff, or stag’s horn fungus,” said Ziggy Senkens, after rummaging inside a wet log in Endcliffe Park woods.

“In wartime it’s said people were encouraged to find it and kill it because it glowed in the dark. Or perhaps it was just an idea to keep kids out of mischief.”

October is fungal foray time, when every few days there’s a guided walk looking for strange growths erupting from the trees and grasslands of Sheffield and north Derbyshire.

As a measure of public interest, eight fungal foragers joined city biodiversity monitoring officer Ziggy in the pouring rain on Saturday morning, with the aim of finding out what fungi were growing in the park.

Fungal Foray at Endcliffe Park: Ziggy Senkans with a trooping funnel fungus

Fungal Foray at Endcliffe Park: Ziggy Senkans with a trooping funnel fungus

The warm and dry weather recently had caused the various fruit bodies of fungi that emerged a month ago to recede again, said Ziggy. “But if it doesn’t get cold, we might get another flush.”

Ziggy and the enthusiastic fungal foragers kept darting into the undergrowth to emerge with a series of mushrooms and fungoid stories. Here’s the sycamore tar spot fungus, an indicator of much reduced sulphur dioxide in Sheffield’s air, now re-emerging on leaves again after years of coal smoke.

Here are clumps of shaggy scaly cap, sprouting from the base of a much-loved ash tree near Hunters Bar.

“It tends to grow at the base of a tree and after you see it, in a few years the tree has fallen over,” said Ziggy.

“Whether it’s killing the tree itself, or growing on dead wood or ‘rot pockets’ we’re not sure. But this tree is very popular so the tree inspectors will do their utmost to keep it standing.”

And here, next to an old stump riddled with various bracket fungi – including the ‘artist’s bracket’ reputedly favoured by Victorian sketchers who drew on its pale underside – is the innocuously-named honey fungus.

“It’s a serious parasite, and can cause real trouble in plantations and gardens,” said Ziggy.

“They’ve done DNA testing on a honey fungus near the west coast of America, and they say if you weigh the underground mycelia and the fruit bodies it would weigh as much as three blue whales. At over 2,000 years old, they reckon it’s also one of the oldest organisms on the planet.”

Many of the foragers were keen to find edible varieties. Ziggy pointed out the majority of fungi were neither tasty nor fatally poisonous, but just not worth putting in your wild food basket.

“Fungi are also really good at accumulating poisons and because Sheffield has been industrial for hundreds of years you should err on the side of caution.”

Many woodland sites have been home to small metal and chemical industries, Ziggy noted, and roadside fungi may also contain lead or other poisons. Best to pick with an expert, he advised.

There has been a growing interest in edible fungi, Ziggy said. “When I started in the 1980s it was because I was unemployed and couldn’t afford to eat decent stuff, but knew what was edible, so I used to used to go round with friends and find puffballs, bolettes and field mushrooms out of necessity.”

Times have changed, evidenced by a friend’s encounters at Longshaw, known to be one of the best sites in the country for grassland fungi of various levels of biochemical interest and edibility.

“He was shocked by the number of people roaming around with big baskets full of fungi,” said Ziggy. “He asked one person why they’d picked one inedible variety and he said: ‘I’m picking everything and I’ll go through them later and eat what’s edible and bin what isn’t.’”

Ziggy said fungi are home – and food – to all kinds of other wildlife, and for many the visible mushroom – or fruiting body – carried away in a novice’s basket may be the organism’s only chance to reproduce for several years.

“You should treat fungi with respect,” he said, while the tendrils of honey fungus, scaly cap and giant polypore spread under Endcliffe.