Pinkgills, Earthtongues, Fairy-clubs and Parrots
In these islands there are no hedgerows adorned with hips and haws, orchards laded with apples or woodland walks full of glowing leaves and the chance discovery of spiky, sweet chestnuts, milky hazel nuts or golden chanterelles. Our native woodlands are confined to deep ravines where the rowans, birches and aspens flaunt their buttery, autumn colours in solitude. The autumn landscape does not blaze with the colours of the forests, it is more subdued. In the fading evening light the hills are draped with cloud, their dark slopes indigo behind the west facing ridges defined by the warm glow of the setting sun.The lowland fields and the machair are still green, their summer floristic glory reduced to scattered bleached, crackling seed heads. However, nestled among the grass there are strange fruits, as gaudy as any Michaelmas fairing. Pickings for the larder are slim, perhaps a handful of field mushrooms or a young puffball, these strange fruits are soul food.
Jewel coloured waxcaps, delicate fairy-clubs, sinister earthtongues and pinkgills, are indicators of ancient grasslands which have not been ploughed or saturated with fertiliser and are managed by grazing or mowing. Up to 95% of the ancient grassland in the UK has been destroyed by to agricultural improvement or developments since the 1940s. Once commonplace, they are now rare and precious habitats and once destroyed it is almost impossible to restore their fragile ecosystems. The presence of waxcaps (Hygrocybe species) and other specialist grassland fungi, particularly the various species of pinkgills (Entoloma), fairy-clubs (Clavariaceae) and earthtongues (Geoglossaceae) are indicators of unimproved grassland, and are used in the assessment of their conservation status.
As their common names suggest, this groups of fungi can be recognised by their physical characteristics. Waxcaps have a thick cap with a waxy texture, sometimes covered with a slimy coat, as in the parrot waxcap (Hygrocybe psittacina). They appear in a range of bright colours from yellow to scarlet and pale pink to ivory. Entolomas also appear in variety from indigo or very dark blue to dark mouse brown to pale grey or even white, but have pink gills on the underside of the cap. Earthtongues and fairy-clubs hide in the grass poking up like tiny fingers reaching for the sky. Difficult to find, but always a fascinating discovery.
It will soon be National Fungus Weekend (12-13 October), so even if you can’t find some ancient grassland to explore you will certainly find some interesting fungi in your local woodland. Fungi are difficult to identify, but even if you can’t give them a name you can enjoy their beauty and marvel their variety. Please remember that if you are tempted to collect edible fungi you need to be certain about your identification. Mistakes can be fatal.