Despite the unforeseen scenarios of the global pandemic, we might seek some solace in the reports of fish returning to rivers and smog layers lifting. As the earth powers down, new possibilities emerge. It is also time of incredible opportunity.
With travel restricted, many of us are taking a closer look at what is directly around us. We’re finally finding time to put a name on that elusive bird or plant those seedlings. As the days cool and the autumn moves in, it’s a perfect time to rediscover the extraordinary inhabitants of the Otways forests – from ancient bryophytes to powerful owls to ghost fungi.
The recent rains mean we’re probably in for a bumper fungus season. The wet temperate rainforests and other habitats of the Otways are a hotspot for a great diversity of fungi, many of which are yet to be formally named or described. While people are mostly familiar with the cap-and-stalk style mushroom, fungi manifest in a great array of bizarre and beautiful forms. There are those shaped like corals, others like goblets, pancakes, brains or even more curious configurations. We often only think about fungi when we see mushrooms push through the soil, however it is the underground network of fungal fibres known as mycelia that underpin forest health and functioning.
This article explores three of the first and most conspicuous fungi that are appearing in the local Otways forests, the ghost fungus (Omphalotus nidiformis); the giant bolete (Phlebopus marginatus); and the ruby bonnet (Cruentomycena viscidocruenta).
One of the most exciting forays into the fungal kingdom is to venture into the forest on a moonless night. Fungi are well known for their perplexing traits and one of the more mesmerising, indeed other-worldly, is luminosity. Once your eyes are adjusted to the dark, you might notice a pale green glow at the base of some trees. The mysterious ghost fungus (Omphalotus nidiformis) is one of just a few fungi in Australia that bioluminesce (glow). Others occur in the genera Armillaria and Mycena. You can find the ghost fungus throughout the Otways, on both living or dead trees, stumps and large pieces of fallen wood, often in overlapping clusters.
How do they bioluminesce? The ghost fungus contains a light-emitting substance called luciferin (lucifer, meaning ‘light-bringing’). In the presence of oxygen, luciferin is oxidised by an enzyme called luciferase. The result is a curious green glow that earns the ghost fungus its name.
Why do they bioluminesce? Some people have suggested that nocturnal insects or mammals are attracted to the glow and assist the fungus to disperse its spores. It certainly sounds like a feasible idea, however, research has shown that glowing mushrooms do not attract any more insects than those that do not glow. Another explanation, even if a little unsatisfying, is that bioluminescence is an incidental by-product of metabolism. Or just perhaps . . . they help disoriented wombats find their way through the forest at night . . . .
Aboriginal Australians were probably the first to discover the luminescence of ghost fungi. Early settlers in Australia recorded the reactions of different Aboriginal groups to what we think was the ghost fungus. Some, such as the Kombumerri of southeastern Queensland, associated luminous fungi with evil spirits and supernatural activities of Dreamtime ancestors. West Australian Aboriginal people referred to the ghost fungus as Chinga, meaning spirit.
While spectacular at night, the ghost fungus is also impressive during the day. The large funnel-shaped mushrooms vary in form and colour from white to cream with various shades of brown, yellow, green, grey, purple and black, usually around the centre of the pileus (cap). On the underside, the lamellae (radiating plates that contain the spores) are white to cream coloured and extend down the stipe (stem).
The ghost fungus is one to admire and not to pick. Be aware that it has been mistaken for edible oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus) but causes severe nausea and vomiting if eaten.
The ghost fungus (Omphalotus nidiformis).
The curious green glow of the ghost fungus.
The white-cream lamellae on the underside of the ghost fungus.
The giant bolete (Phlebopus marginatus) – as its name suggests – is Australia’s largest fungus, with a pileus measuring up to 60cm or so in diameter. Unlike the ghost fungus that grows on woodtter parts of the forest, this imposing fungus grows in soil, in we often in woodlands or grassy areas near native trees. It often appears in large groups, sometimes in arcs or rings. This rather stout and portly mushroom has an underside of pores rather than lamellae. When young the stipe is usually broader than the pileus. Each pore is the opening of a tube where the spores are produced.
The giant bolete is referred to as ‘Gondwanan’ (in reference to the ancient southern supercontinent Gondwana), growing in other southern countries including New Zealand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Because of its impressive size, it has captured Australians’ attention and along with the ghost fungus, was among the first species to appear in Australian newspaper reports of fungi.
Although some people have eaten the giant bolete with no ill effects, others have experienced gastrointestinal symptoms. Giant boletes are also popular as food and habitat of a great range of invertebrates and are often riddled with fly larva and their kin, perhaps reducing one’s temptation to try them!
|A young giant bolete (Phlebopus marginatus), with a very broad stipe.||Giant boletes are often inhabited by fly larvae and other invertebrates.||A giant bolete starting to crack after being exposed to wind and sun.|
At the other end of the size spectrum, the tiny ruby bonnet (Cruentomycena viscidocruenta) measures less than a centimetre across its pileus, although its striking blood-red colouration makes it conspicuous to those with keen eyes. A closer look reveals the pileus to be striated (with lines radiating from the centre to the edges), often with a darker red central dimple. The stipe is viscid (slimy) to touch as it has a translucent gluten coating. The base of the stipe often has tufts of white hyphae. It grows among native leaf litter and on sticks and logs, often in small groups, in the wetter parts of the Otways forests.
The ruby bonnet is always a thrill to find and children are especially good at spotting them.
|The ruby bonnet (Cruentomycena viscidocruenta).||Note the glutinous stipes of the ruby bonnet.||Note the striated pileus and darker centre of the ruby bonnet.|
Fungi and Southern Otways Landcare
Conservation is usually driven by those on the ground. By those who walk in the forest daily, who live in the vicinity of the river, the beach, the special patch; those who observe. They recognise the changes, the losses, the need for protection. Over the last decade, SOLN has set a precedent in recognising the importance of including fungi in thinking about land rehabilitation. Members understand the ecological significance of fungi and are exploring ways to include them in monitoring and revegetation programs. Understanding fungi – their diversity, distribution and life histories – is a precursor to conserving them.
How can Landcarers help encourage fungi in their Landcare activities? Diversity is key. Maximise habitat types and microclimates by retaining a variety of organic matter (leaves, sticks, branches, bark etc., of varying age, size and species). This provides the best opportunity for a great range of fungi to colonise. Furthermore, removing or minimising stresses to fungi – such as physical disturbance through compaction or digging, over-watering, fire, excessive use of fertilisers and chemicals – increases their potential to flourish. Incorporating fungi and the important processes they perform offer possibilities for Landcare to move to a whole new level of success.
About the Author
Dr Alison Pouliot is an ecologist and environmental photographer who runs fungus workshops in Australia and internationally. She has been involved with SOLN for over a decade. Her recent book The Allure of Fungi includes some fungal escapades with local folk in the Otways forests. www.alisonpouliot.com.
Alison Pouliot is an ecologist and environmental photographer who is passionate about fungi. Image: © Valérie Chételat