Fabulous fungi

Red and white Fly agaric fungi growing among fallen leaves

Often used to illustrate fairy tales and associated with folklore, fungi remind us of mythical creatures, favourite stories or childhood characters. From rock hard, black fungi named after the legend of King Alfred’s burnt cakes to tiny orange fungi that look like little pieces of orange peel, the breadth and variety of British fungi can be astonishing. They come in many shapes and sizes and can be found by looking high and low, particularly in woodland. Their names can be simply descriptive or intriguing, reflecting past times and legends.

What are fungi?

Not categorised as a plant, fungi are organisms that live under the ground or on their host. They form a colony of tiny branching threads called Mycelium.

The parts of the fungi we see above ground are the fruiting bodies. This part contains spores, similar to seeds in as much as they are for reproduction, which are dispersed to produce future colonies. Some fungi shed their spores from below, some by expelling them with force and others in liquid form.

Fungi don’t photosynthesise as they don’t have any chlorophyll, so they get their energy from their growing medium, which might be leaf litter, rotting wood or decaying creatures.

Elfin saddle fungus
Elfin saddle fungi at Emmetts Garden, a National Trust property in Kent
Elfin saddle fungus

A food source for wildlife

Along with berries, hips, seeds and nuts, fungi can be a source of nutrition for our wildlife, particularly in the autumn months as they are preparing for the long winter ahead. While not many mammals eat fungi directly, they are a favourite of a variety of mini-beasts such as slugs, ants and flies, who in turn are eaten by larger creatures, including birds. Fungi are an essential part of the lifecycle of many habitats.

Slugs feasting on fungi
Two slugs making a meal of some fungi which has already been more than half eaten
Slugs feasting on fungi

What do they do?

Fungi are essential for ecological health and the balance of ecosystems. They are a vital part of the decomposition process, helping to break down material in woodland. Without them, leaf litter, dead animals and trees would continually build up. The resulting decayed matter goes on to feed other plants and organisms keeping the ecosystem going.

Fungi release nitrogen and phosphorus from the decaying process into the atmosphere, unlocking these elements and replenishing the environment with nutrients.

Mealy bonnet fungi
Mealy bonnet fungi at Emmetts Garden, a National Trust property in Kent
Mealy bonnet fungi

Best left untouched

Many varieties of fungi are poisonous, so it’s best to simply photograph and avoid touching them. 

Bracket fungi
Bracket fungi growing on a stump at Emmetts Garden, a National Trust place in Kent
Bracket fungi

Help us look after our fungi

The trend of foraging for fungi has increased, which could lead to a negative impact on fungi populations, and the organisms they support. Therefore we don't support or allow fungi picking on any of our land. This is in line with our Wild Food Foraging position. Commercial picking is illegal, so if you suspect or see commercial picking please contact the local police to inform them.

Some of our favourite fungi