14 May 2014

The F word: fungi in Auckland

A combination of the autumnal weather and recent warm rains has produced a proliferation of fungi in the local parks, which has, of course, caught my photographer’s eye and captured my interest. Perhaps, in another life, I was a mycologist.

Fungi are not plants, as they lack the ability to photosynthesise – instead, they get their nutrition either by digesting decaying organic matter or through finding other organisms to act as their hosts.

Did you know that 90 per cent of terrestrial plants – trees, shrubs, and all the rest – form a symbiotic relationship with at least one fungus and some have relationships with hundreds of fungi? According to an article in the latest copy of Forest & Bird magazine (no: 351, February 2014. pp. 46-49), most plants ‘cannot uptake enough soil nutrients, including water, without fungal assistance. All mycorrhizal fungi live either on or in plant roots, most forming sheaths of mycelial threads that effectively increase the surface area of the roots, delivering vital nutrients.’ The fungi tap into the tree roots to get carbohydrates and, in so doing, provide the plants with minerals. It’s a win-win situation.

Of course, all that action happens where we can’t see it – hidden away underground or within a tree. The fungi we commonly see around us are just the fruiting bodies and their purpose is to spread the spores that will enable the fungi to establish new colonies.

You might not realise it but fungi have a huge impact on all of us. On the negative side, they damage our timber through dry rot, they blight our potatoes and rust our maize, and they cause athlete’s foot, ringworm and bronchial problems in humans. But where would we be without the fungi that produce antibiotics like penicillin, or those we use to flavour our cheeses and make our bread rise and, most importantly, those that convert sugar to alcohol!

There are at least a million species of fungi and, though environmentalists battle away for the rights of plants and animals, few people realise that, to ensure the future of our planet, we must also consider our fungi. As Landcare Research scientist Dr Peter Buchanan was recently quoted as saying (in the Forest & Bird magazine cited above) “We need to start talking about flora, fauna and fungi. Fungi is the missing F-word.”

Here are a few of the fungi I have spotted on my daily walks through Auckland’s inner-city parks. Further blogs on the subject are likely!

Scarlet flycap Amanita muscaria
When I first spotted one of these in the Ayr Street Reserve in Parnell, I had a ‘wow’ moment. It was like walking into a fairytale … I half expected fairies and elves to emerge and perform a magical dance amongst the leaf litter. This is, after all, the classic what-every-kid-would-draw-if-you-asked-them mushroom.

The scarlet flycap (also known as the fly agaric or fly amanita) isn’t native to New Zealand but was unintentionally introduced here due to its symbiotic relationship with pine trees, and I’ve since spotted more of these under other pine trees. Its flesh contains psychoactive substances so eating this little beauty would not only result in a hallucinogenic adventure, it would probably kill you. Feast with your eyes only!

Wood-ear jelly Auricularia cornea
Who needs 3-D printers to produce replacement human body parts when you could use a fungus instead? Okay, maybe that’s not a practical solution to gaining a new ear but, you have to agree, they are definitely the right shape, if a little brown and furry.

The wood-ear jelly (its form can be gelatinous, hence the jelly part of its name) is a very common and easily recognisable fungus that grows on standing and fallen dead broadleaf trees, in parks and gardens and forest areas. It can reach up to 100mm across, though its shape becomes more contorted and undulating as it ages. 

A fascinating fact from Ridley’s book (see reference below): ‘It was of considerable economic importance [in New Zealand]… at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth when large quantities were exported to China for food.’ The Maori call this fungus hakeke, and it was a traditional stop-gap food source in lean times.

Turkey-tail porebracket Trametes versicolor
This must be the multi-storey condominium of the fungus world. As the name suggests, bracket fungi resemble shelves or brackets growing from the sides of tree trunks (or condominiums, with large balconies, ranging down the sides of cliffs, if you have an imagination like mine).

The brackets range in size from 20 to 100mm wide and display multi-coloured zones in shades of beige, yellow, orange, brown and even blue, hence the common name of Turkey-tail. It is an extremely variable fungus so no two groupings have the same colour patterns, and it is probably the most common bracket fungus, being found on branches, trunks and logs in all types of forests and plantations.

Giant flamecap Gymnopilus junonius
I had another ‘wow’ moment when I saw my first example of the Giant flamecap, also in the Ayr Street Reserve in Parnell. It was growing off the side of a large fallen tree and its cap was about 200mm across (I photographed it with my hand in the picture to remind me of its enormous size.) These impressive fungi usually grow on broadleaf and coniferous trees, in parks and gardens, but are not normally found in our New Zealand native forests so are not thought to be a native species.

They start out quite small, emerging through fissures in the bark, as you can see from the photo above left. That vibrant orange cap colour seems to intensify as they age, and their flesh and stems vary in colour from yellow-brown to orange-brown.

Revolute inkcap Coprinopsis
From the gigantic and robust to the small and delicate … the Revolute inkcap’s cap ranges from 20 to 40mm in diameter, starting out bell-shaped, then rolling up around the edges as it ages – this all happens very quickly as this little fruiting body lives for just a few hours.

As you can see, it’s a greyish-brown in colour, with thin pale grey flesh. Its gills blacken as it gets older, hence the name inkcap. It can be found in lawns and lawn clippings, in leaf litter and on the forest floor.

Lemon parasol Leucocoprinus birnbaumii
It may not be big enough to protect humans from the rain, but the lemon parasol would work perfectly for the elves and fairies I started this list with. However, as it is mostly associated with the potting mix gardeners use to plant their houseplants, it’s not likely to attract the typical timid fairy.

Tinkerbell might prove the exception and, truth be told, I photographed the vibrant yellow grouping above in the compost-rich soil of a cultivated roadside planting, so there is still hope for a sighting of the little people. The outdoor examples of this fungus are often much paler than those found indoors, as you can see from the examples below.

I used this book (and the internet) to help identify the fungi I’ve found but if you think I’ve misidentified something, please do let me know in the comments section below. Geoff Ridley, A Photographic Guide to Mushrooms and Other Fungi in New Zealand, New Holland, Auckland, 2006 (with photographs by Don Horne)

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