Mushrooms and toadstools have long been associated with the supernatural. Their habit of popping-up overnight, seemingly from nowhere, and then almost as quickly dissolving back into obscurity, gives them an air of sly mystery. Their ability to be both delicious and deadly, sometimes both, lends them a malign glamour, while their ability to produce altered states and mystical experiences has imbued them with a quasi-religious significance to some. The Great North Wood, with its mix of secondary and ancient woodland, is a fungal treasure trove and at their peak in autumn you can barely take a step without seeing some new mycological delight emerging from a rotting log or poking out from under a carpet of dead leaves.
Fungi, being somewhat immobile and plant-like, were once considered to be part of the plant kingdom. In fact, we now know that they are more closely related to animals and because they can’t produce their own food using energy from the sun they must, like animals, go on the hunt for food in the form of other living or once-living things. The food-harvesting part of fungi is the mycelium: a web of super-fine threads that penetrate soil and wood digesting and absorbing organic molecules. The charismatic and colourful structures we recognise as fungi are just part of the organism; they are the fruit bodies whose function is to produce and disperse spores.
Many fungi eat dead plant material which makes them a vital part of all ecosystems because they allow the nutrients which would otherwise be locked up in dead plants to be made available again for other plants. One theory suggests that the rich coal deposits laid down in the carboniferous era were a result of a lag period between the evolution of lignin, an incredibly tough molecule that gives wood it’s hardness, and the evolution of fungi that could digest it. Before fungi evolved the necessary enzymes, there was nothing around that could decay wood. This led to a huge wood pollution problem with wood stacking up all over the place for several million years before eventually becoming fossilised as coal.