Fungi in Shropshire

This weekend saw a return visit to FSC Preston Montford for my final course in the University Certificate in Biological Recording and Species Identification – Identification of Macrofungi tutored by Irene Ridge. An interest in fungi (or mycology) was one of my earliest, after attending a fungi foray at Queen Elizabeth Country Park, Hampshire, with the RSPB’s Phoenix group way back in 1996. This led me to purchase a compound microscope in 2000 but I found it difficult to master the techniques needed to prepare slides without tuition and soon moved on to other groups, hence my motivation to attend this course and have another go.

After an introduction to fungi and how to record and describe specimens on the Friday evening it was off to Attingham Park on Saturday to collect our own specimens.
Attingham Park (3)

Attingham Park

This site introduced me to grassland fungi, a habitat which I had not forayed before. The short, old lawns around Attingham Hall are an example of waxcap-grassland, a fungal community characterised by waxcaps (Hygrocybe spp.), club fungi (Clavariaceae) pink-gills (Entoloma spp.) and earthtongues (Geoglossaceae). Waxcap-grasslands are of conservation interest as indicators of unimproved grassland, a threatened habitat in the UK. It is only recently they have begun to receive attention on their ecology and distribution, with a English Nature Report published in 2003.

Snowy Waxcap Hygrocybe virginea at Attingham Hall
Snowy Waxcap Hygrocybe virginea

Apricot Club Clavulinopsis luteo-alba from Attingham Hall
Apricot Club Clavulinopsis luteo-alba

Attingham is not all grassland though, there were many handsome mature trees in which we found some woodland fungi which were familiar to me. Irene explained the importance of taking good field notes when collecting fungi, many are mycorrhizal, a symbiotic relationship with plants, and some fungi species are restricted to certain tree species; without this information identification may not be possible. Whether the fungus was growing alone or in groups, was attached to wood or soil, and even the smell, colour and texture of the cap which may change after collection can be important for identification and must be noted on collection.

Artist’s Bracket Ganoderma sp. (probably G. applanatum) on Beech at Attingham Park
Artist’s Bracket Ganoderma sp. (probably G. applanatum) on Beech

Jelly-fungus, Exidea nucleolus at Attingham Park
A jelly-fungus, Exidea nucleolus

Irene discusses the identification features of a Boletus fungus
Irene discusses the identification features of a Boletus fungus

Back in the lab we began identifying our collections using a mixture of identification books and keys. I began by making spore prints as the colour of the spores is a key feature in identification, in the past I had done this by cutting the cap off and putting it on white and black paper but Irene demonstrated suspending the fruit body over a microscope slide in a cup. This keeps the specimen moist, as spores do not drop when the atmosphere is dry, explaining why I was not very successful with mine in the past!

Making a spore print using plastic cups and microscope slides (diagram)

On the Sunday we were off on another trip, this time to woodland at Nesscliffe Country Park.

Beech woodland at Nesscliffe
Beech woodland at Nesscliffe – lots of lovely leaf litter!

Russula ochroleuca at Nesscliffe
Russula ochroleuca

Russula is one of my favourite fungi, they generally have a typical mushroom shape, crumbly flesh and gills (their common name is brittlegill). There are many species, often with brightly coloured caps like the yellow Russula ochrolecua we found in numbers at Nesscliffe, this is very common species which grows with many species of trees, but other Russula form mycorrhiza with specific trees and are one of the groups were good field notes are important. They are also identified by differences in cap and spore colour, ideally using a colour card as this can be subjective. Taste can also be important, which is checked by chewing a small piece which is then spat out, some have a very hot taste. This multisensory aspect of fungi identification is part of the appeal for me although the subjective nature of colour, smell and taste can be a problem, with some books describing species as smelling of obscure things as ‘Russian leather’ and ‘old laundry soap’!

Jelly Ear Auricularia auricula-judae at Nesscliffe
Jelly Ear Auricularia auricula-judae

Also at Nesscliffe I found a branch covered with wonderful Jelly Ear (Auricularia auricula-judae) one of my favourite fungi as it looks so much like an ear. I also found a tiny jelly fungus growing on beech mast while I was searching (unsuccessfully) for the beechmast fungus Xylaria carpophila. Another highlight was the Wood Woollyfoot (Gymnopus peronatus) which as the common name suggests has a lovely ‘woolly’ base to the stipe.

Wood Woollyfoot (Gymnopus peronatus) at Nesscliffe Wood Woollyfoot (Gymnopus peronatus)
Wood Woollyfoot (Gymnopus peronatus) in habitat and close up in the lab showing woolly base to stipe

Another old favourite is “smell it before you see it” Stinkhorn (Phallus impudicus) although we only found in the ‘egg’ stage and one old specimen, both badly eaten by slugs, missing out on in its erect magnificence.

Stinkhorn (Phallus impudicus) ‘egg’
Back in the lab Irene gave a demonstration of microscopy techniques for fungi and I had a go myself, finally seeing the spores, basidia and cystidia which I had failed to find on my own. These preparations involve taking a small piece of gill, putting a drop on a stain called Congo Red on top and then squashing a coverslip gently over the top. After blotting any excess liquid the slide is examined under a high power microscope. I was hoping to show some of my own slides but unfortunately I don’t have any Congo Red at home so the photomicrographs below are courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Basidia stained with Congo Red, the pointy bits on top are where the spores attach

By Andreas Kunze (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Basidia (singular basidium) are the spore bearing structures in one of the major groups of fungi, the Basidiomycota which includes most of the species identified this weekend; the shape and number of spores is used in identification. Cystidia are sticky-outy cells found on various parts of the fungal fruit body, and the position, shape and reaction with certain chemicals are important for identification.

By Andreas Kunze (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

The course finished with an assignment – identifying 15 specimens and/or photographs, it was strange to think it was my last on the course and that with my uCert and MSc complete I am for the first time in 7 years not in formal education! The two fungi forays and tuition in microscopy techniques were just what I needed to get back into fungi identification, I will be dusting off my old compound microscope and giving it another go!

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