Fantastic fungi

Boletus watercolour by Sonia Hensler

It has been a great autumn so far in the kingdom of fungi, with superb, eye-catching examples displaying themselves throughout the Park and woodland at Trelissick. The ranger team has been so impressed with the wealth of mushrooms on the estate that we have decided to share some of the best ones we have seen.

Fungus for the uninitiated

Our depth of appreciation for mushrooms can be aided by a basic understanding of how they function. Although they might seem to be some form of plant, fungi are actually unable to photosynthesize like a plant would. Instead, a fungus acquires nutrients much like an animal by consuming other plants and animals (even other fungi), often in a dead or well-rotted form.

These unique organisms actually represent one of the five ‘kingdoms’ of life – the others being plants, animals, prokaryotae (rock-bottom on the evolutionary scale, these are single-celled organisms who don’t even have a nucleus to their name, e.g. bacteria and blue-green algae) and protoctista (a step up, these organisms are still unicellular, but have a nucleus, e.g. amoeba and paramecium).

With that little piece of knowledge under our belt, let's take a look at what can be found out and about at Trelissick.


Fairy rings

There is another common misconception to address on this ‘ere blog, that the toadstools we see peeking through forest floors and tussocks of grass are understood to be individual organisms called mushrooms.

However, this is most certainly not the case and, like apples on an apple tree, the toadstools we come across are merely the reproductive fruit bodies of the true, parent organism which is called mycelium. This mycelium is often referred to as a ‘net’ because when unearthed, this mass of cells does indeed resemble a tightly-knit net. Residing beneath the soil – as it does under normal circumstances – this ravenous mass feeds on nutrients; fructifying and forcing its way through the substrate as long as there is food within its grasp.

When food supply within the ground is evenly arrayed and uninterrupted, the mycelium has the opportunity to grow ever-outward. It leaves the impoverished substrate it has consumed in its wake and pushes on into more fertile territory. If the mycelium decides that the time is right to produce mushrooms, the result would be a fairy ring and a clear demonstration of the fungus’ growth outward from its initial point.  The underground enterprise of the mycelium can still be observed without the fruiting of mushrooms but you will need a keen eye to spot the darker circle of grass where the mycelium has been active beneath.

Each year, a fairy ring will typically broaden its radius and studies have been undertaken to understand growth rates. The results of these studies indicate that some of the mycelium must be hundreds of years old!


Parasol mushrooms emerge in Trelissick parkland
Parasol mushrooms emerge in Trelissick parkland
Parasol mushrooms emerge in Trelissick parkland

Parasol mushroom (Lepiota procera)

The parasol mushroom (Lepiota procera) is reputedly one of the very best mushrooms to eat and is commonly found in open woods or out on old, unimproved grassland and heath. The parasol takes its name from its giant, umbrella-like cap that can be as large as 25cm across when fully open. The caps begin life as ‘buttons’ and then expand themselves slowly so there is a fair chance you might spot a parasol at an earlier stage  – when they are known as drum sticks.


The appearance of the beefsteak fungus is its namesake
Beefsteak fungus at Trelissick, Cornwall
The appearance of the beefsteak fungus is its namesake

Beefsteak fungus (Fistulina hepatica)

This common bracket fungus was given its current scientific name in 1792 by William Withering.  Mr. Withering was a British botanist made famous through his discovery of the active ingredient in a foxglove-derived herbal remedy that relieved sufferers of the heart condition known as dropsy. The substance he discovered is known today as digitalis.

Fistulina means ‘with little pipes or tubes’ and refers to the network of separate pipes and tubes inside the fungus. Hepatica refers to the liver-like appearance of the mature brackets. Beefsteak fungus are a parasitic species that are most often found on living oak trees but have also been known to make a home of the occasional sweet chestnut. Their parasitism does not weaken the host timber at first but actually darkens the wood, resulting in an attractive pattern called ‘brown oak’ that is highly prized among wood turners and cabinet makers.

As the name would suggest, beefsteak fungus (also known as ox tongue fungus) bears a striking similarity to raw meat. In the past, it was often cooked and eaten as a meat substitute and is still sold on the traditional French markets to this day. The beefsteak is large and tongue-shaped, often a deep red liver colour, slimy on top and pale yellow underneath. When the fungus is young, it oozes a red substance in an almost worrying approximation of blood. Unfortunately, the flavor of this eye-catching woodland character is not as noteworthy as its appearance, although young specimens are said to be rather more palatable, and ‘are best simmered slowly to soften the flesh’ – Roger Phillips.

The ‘fruit bodies’ of the beefsteak can be spotted from August until November and we saw a cracking example down on the South Woodland Walk several weeks ago.


You will not miss the huge 'Sparassis Crispa'; a Cauliflower Fungus. The fruit bodies of Cauliflower Fungus are cream, often with yellowish tints when dry, with white flesh.
Cauliflower Fungus
You will not miss the huge 'Sparassis Crispa'; a Cauliflower Fungus. The fruit bodies of Cauliflower Fungus are cream, often with yellowish tints when dry, with white flesh.

Cauliflower fungus (Sparassis crispa)

Cauliflower fungus (sometimes known as wood cauliflower) is the most common and certainly the best known mushroom of its type throughout Europe. The fruit bodies of this fungus are usually found on the roots of trees (more than likely a pine), although they can also occur on the main trunk or even a dead stump.

Cauliflower fungus is edible (indeed, it is even cultivated for culinary purposes in Japan) but must be collected when still in good, fresh condition and requires thorough washing to remove the grit and grime that hides amid its copious lobes. Within the realm of medicine, these mushrooms have been shown to boast anti-tumour properties and contain chemicals that apparently stimulate the immune system.

As is the case with most fungi, cauliflower fungus can vary greatly in size but most are between 15-20cm across and, when fresh, may weigh over 5kg. Sporadic large specimens have been reported – One, found in south-east France in 2000, was reported in the Los Angeles Times to weigh a remarkable 63.4 pounds (28.8 kg), which was more than double the previous record! It was reported that the finders had to use a jacket to move it to their car, and that the specimen was to be frozen for exhibit at mushroom fairs.


On parting…

Fungi are an essential component of woodland ecology, helping to recycle nutrients from dead or decomposing organic material. Many animals depend upon the activity of fungi and the unique forms of habitat that their activity leaves as aftermath.

At Trelissick, we manage all our woodland for the benefit of the trees and wildlife that call it home and leave a great deal of standing and fallen deadwood to support and promote fungal activity. Keep your eyes peeled as you walk the estate this autumn – there are plenty of beautiful mushrooms around!

– The National Trust ranger team, Trelissick and North Helford