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NATURE WATCH.

Byline: By Peter Shirley

The warm and wet August we have just had should result in a bumper crop of autumn toadstools. These are amongst the most important of nature's recyclers, many species taking their sustenance from the decaying remains of plants and animals.

Sometimes of course the fungi concerned feed on healthy plants and hasten their death and decay, and some species feed on other fungi.

Most fungi is invisible most of the time, but the bit we see -the so-called fruiting body -comes in all shapes and sizes, from the microscopic to football-sized puffballs, and may be found as striking individual specimens or in great masses.

They are attached to a network of minute tubes called hyphae which absorb nutrients from the host. If the host is living the fungus is a parasite, if the host is dead it is a saprophyte.

The purpose of the fruiting bodies is to produce spores through which fungi reproduce. Grassland fairy rings are formed and expand when spores drop close to and around the parent toadstools, thus increasing the diameter of the fungal patch each year.

Autumn is the time when most toadstools will be seen, especially in woodlands. Fly agaric is one of the most prominent. It is a large red toadstool with white patches, which grows on the roots of birch and pine trees. This is a poisonous toadstool, one of the effects of which is to cause hallucinations - hence its reputation as the "magic mushroom". It is one of the gill toadstools, with its spores being produced in the crease-like gills beneath the cap.

Another large group of toadstools (the Boletus group) produce their spores in tubes instead of gills. The underside of their caps is sponge-like. Among them is the "penny-bun" boletus, one of the few species traditionally gathered for food in this country. You should not eat wild gathered fungi unless you are absolutely sure that it is edible. Poisonous and edible species can be indistinguishable to anyone but an expert.

By Peter Shirley, former regional director of the Wildlife Trust. p etershirley@blueyonder.co.uk

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Sep 30, 2006
Words:354
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