September is a month of cool mornings and low, diminishing sunlight that elongates shadows and intensifies the red colours of the spectrum.
It is also a time when the forests begin to produce a particular fruit. There is a huge amount of beech mast around now and it looks like a bumper year for anyone wanting to play conkers. But I am not talking about all that, which is a delight mainly for squirrels. It is in September that the season for fungi really gets going.
Fungi inhabit a kingdom all of their own but are more closely related to humans that you might think. When we buy mushrooms at the supermarket we are buying the fruiting or reproductive structure which is only a small part of the whole. Below the soil surface or within decaying timber a network of fungal mycelium seek out nutrients. We are only just beginning to understand the full complexity of the relationship between fungi and plants. Often the relationship is mutually beneficial. The plant produces carbohydrates through photosynthesis, something that the fungi is incapable of. Whilst in return the questing mycelium effectively extend the surface area of the root zone passing nutrients to the plant. Even mighty forrest giants might not survive so well without fungi.
At Hodnet the woods are home to a huge variety of species. Some betoken illness or death. Honey fungus is familiar to all gardeners as a parasitic fungus predating woody plants. It’s presence is indicated by honey coloured toadstools. There is little to be done except take revenge as they do on the continent by grilling the young toadstools for breakfast.
Many fungi are not of themselves harmful but expose potential problems. Bracket fungus that digests decaying wood, are found on trees but in many cases exist in a cavity within the tree. I recently harvested a spectacular bracket fungus from two of our most venerable oaks.
Chicken of the Woods or Laetiporus Sulphureus to give it it’s true name is often to be found in tiers on oak, beech and yew amongst others. The young brackets are orange or yellow and have the texture and mild smell of uncooked chicken. When cooked, fried gently with butter and a little garlic it has all the texture of chicken. Indeed, it could be used as a substitute for chicken in pasta dishes with success, taking on the flavours of the rest of the dish just as chicken does.
There is a whole world of fungi to explore but first a cautionary note. I double check my identifications with a local mycologist and so should you before eating any foraged from the woods!
On a lighter note, mushrooms always make for a fun party, why wouldn’t they, they’re fun guys!