These conifer plantations are so lifeless: a thick cushion of needles muffles the ground and the trees seem dead until halfway up – a brown on brown world. Just off the path a scatter of white blobs like screwed up tissues catches my eye. I fear the worst, but coming closer realise that they are some kind of life. Holding on to my hat and crawling through the prickly twigs I am confronted by something very strange: fifteen or so mushrooms, of a poisonous species known as The Sickener, are erupting in a delicate halo of white mould which appears to be digesting the very mushroom it is growing on – a fungus consuming a fungus. When I went back to check on them a week or so later they had vanished, slurped out of existence; presumably all that remained were the mould spores, which I was probably inhaling.
Fungi can seem very strange, neither plant nor animal, they are found almost everywhere and are very numerous (12,000 species in Britain – and counting), yet they remain elusive and oddly out of mind. In fact they are essential to us in many ways: helping to digest our food, make bread, brew beer, manufacture antibiotics and a lot more besides. Fungi are also responsible for 90% of decomposition, without them we would be knee deep in dead leaves, and dead bodies. Most of those involved in such processes are microscopic moulds or yeasts, rather than the mushrooms that appear so mysteriously in our autumn woods and fields. Some of those are conspicuous like the Shaggy Inkcap or Puffballs but they are only the fruiting bodies, like apples on a tree, of an intricate web of underground threads (hyphae), which constitute the fungal organism itself.
Many of our woodland trees have an interdependent relationship with certain fungi whose hyphae wrap around the root hairs of the tree and supply them with nutrients; trees are not very good at obtaining these for themselves. In return the trees supply the fungi with the sugars they are not able to make because they lack photosynthesis. The intricate web of hyphae in a wood is vast: it has been estimated that one-kilogram of woodland soil contains 200 kilometres of fungal thread. Without these unseen partnerships there would be no woodland.
Fungi provide wonderful examples of the intricacy and interdependence of living systems. We rarely think of them but couldn’t get by without them. So next time you are digesting a big meal or turning over your compost heap give thanks for fungi – for without their bit of mould you would not last long and your remains would be with us for very much longer.