October/November 2020 garden diary

Deadly danger in the garden! I watched as an amazing crop of mushrooms and toadstools sprang up over the past couple of months. But I was shocked when I identified this specimen …

Although I’m a complete novice in the field of fungi, I remembered seeing this one illustrated as being deadly. And I believe this video on the wildfooduk.com website (a really fascinating, well-produced site, by the way) confirms my suspicion.

October can be a strange month in the garden. Some plants continue to grow full pelt and produce fruit or flowers; others quickly lose their leaves, wither and die, succumbing to the first frost; and then there are the fungi …

Fungi seem to have appeared every year, in all our previous gardens too, often arranged in a whole or part circle: both annual and annular, as it were. But this year has been different: the more I looked, the more I discovered so many individual plants, groups, pairs, rings – and so many different types.

Well okay, they’re not plants. In fact, they’re neither vegetable nor animal, the experts tell us. They form a completely different Kingdom. So what should we say they are? Planimals? Vegetals? Coincidentally, scrolling through our TV’s programme guide, I just happened to come across a discussion show on Al Jazeira, which featured a revealing interview with mycologist Paul Stamets. He confirmed that many fungi do indeed appear suddenly, in “cellular explosions”. Incidentally, Stamets is a cast member in a 2019 movie called Fantastic Fungi.

He believes that fungi are extremely under-exploited. With their largely-untapped uses in the fields of pharmacology, agriculture and environmental improvement, research into fungi should be funded as much as the computer industry, he suggests. Fungi produce water, hydrating the environment and sweating out enzymes, he says, and spores of mushrooms often become nuclei for raindrops, potentially a game-changing benefit in arid areas of the planet.

I think the unseasonably warm and moist atmosphere during this period must have been an important factor in prompting the appearance of so many. In fact, I didn’t realise quite how many were on display until I did a kind of “audit”. Searching in the grass, under trees, along the sides of concrete paths, in undergrowth, on wood piles and hidden away in crowded borders, I discovered some specimens I’d never have known were there. It all started with this lot …

I can’t say with any certainty what type of mushroom (toadstool?) these are.

Looking at my copy of The Observer’s Book of Mushrooms and Toadstools, I’m in awe of experts on fungi – mycologists – who can distinguish between the vast array of individual fungi types. It turns out that there are four main divisions in the world of fungi: Chytridiomycota (chytrids), Zygomycota (bread molds), Ascomycota (yeasts and sac fungi) and Basidiomycota (club fungi). The divisions are based on the way in which different fungi reproduce sexually.

But of course in the large majority of cases I haven’t a clue as to the names of the individual types that I came across. Having said that, realising that there are so many examples in and on our modest garden does make me want to find out more.

Ah yes, the gills. Also known as lamella, apparently, and the place where spores are formed and ejected. I wondered whether mushrooms and toadstools all had gills. Well, just hold on. I’ve searched in vain for information on the distinction between mushrooms and toadstools and it turns out there isn’t one. The Observer’s Book says: “The name commonly used for the cap fungi, other than mushrooms, is toadstools”. Elsewhere I read that they’re non-scientific terms, most often used to distinguish edible from non-edible fungi, and shorthand names for differentiating a fungus with a more ‘conventional’ shape (stalk and cap) – mushroom – from one with some other shape (toadstool). Though not always. Okay?

Anyway, back to the audit. Here are some more pics of the fungi I found.

Did you know, by the way, that for sheer size the largest living land organism is a honey fungus that makes a blue whale look like a mouse in comparison. Back to the audit …

Fungal spores are so light they are easily blown around by even the lightest of winds. The thought occurred to me that they might well fly so high that they could reach the exosphere and be conveyed to other planets – or even to other solar systems – by the effects of gravity and solar winds. Well, from what I’ve read of the weighty debate about this topic, it does seem unlikely. But the argument in favour of panspermia, in opposition to abiogenesis, is one that seems likely to run for many years to come.

After a few weeks, most were gone, cringing and shrinking into the cold of the night air. By the time of the first November frost, they’d vanished.

Vanished but not died: what I’d seen was each fungus’s “fruiting body”. Below the surface, the mycelium lives on, often lending assistance to other plants, as I mentioned in my blog about planting bare root roses. Fungi act as an internet of the soil, allowing plants to communicate with each other. I wonder if we’ll ever be able to join in their conversations? It seems that mushrooms have a great deal to offer us.

And, of course, they do provide a key ingredient in a mushroom omelette; though make sure you choose the right variety …

 

 

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Book review: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Bring Up the Bodies is the second historical novel in Hilary Mantel‘s Booker Prize-winning trilogy about Thomas Cromwell.

I was delighted to find that the author manages to carve a narrative no less gripping and realistic as that which she achieved in the first book, Wolf Hall, which I reviewed a few months ago. That word “realistic” can be taken to mean many things; but for me, in this context, it signifies (again) a filling-in of the huge gaps in our knowledge about the fine detail of life in and around the court of Henry VIII. Mantel once more employs a wealth of intriguing and convincing suppositions, psychological insight and plausible dialogue. No-one will ever know to what extent her suppositions are correct – but they are always persuasive.

I turned the final page feeling that this was more or less how actual events must have played out in the physical settings, the inter-personal relationships and the psyches of the principal characters who were held in near orbit around this tyrant king.

The story moves on, of course, and in some ways the pace increases. Anyone with a cursory knowledge of Henry’s marital timeline is no doubt aware of the fate of his six wives. Primarily, this book tracks the gradual and terrifying slide out of Henry’s affections by Anne Boleyn (drawing, above right, by Hans Holbein The Younger), towards her doom. Our witness to all the goings-on is again Thomas Cromwell, whose persona is once more used as an on-the-spot notary of key moves by the pieces on this unfolding, life-and-death game of chess. Some are pawns, some, like Cromwell, are more powerful pieces; but there is only one king …

I was just slightly more struck this time around by the richness of Hilary Mantel’s prose. It feels like not a single paragraph, even when the event described is mundane, can go by without the addition of some small but eye-catching gem of literary embellishment. At one point, for instance, the king rises from his place and “His servants eddied about him”. What a lovely choice of verb!

There are innumerable other examples: as when Cromwell pays a visit to Henry Norris at the Tower of London (see below): “Gentle Norris: chief bottom-wiper to the king, spinner of silk threads, spider of spiders, black centre of the vast dripping web of court patronage”.

Another distinguishing characteristic is an increasing resort to a more earthy prose style, with the use on a number of occasions of obscenities and unrestrained descriptions of bodily functions and sexual acts (of numerous kinds). It’s not over-done but is a very telling ingredient in the blunt realism and quasi-documentary feel of the novel.

I say again: this is an imagined account of life and death in the court of Henry VIII which will not be surpassed.

 

 

Image credits: Anne Boleyn by Hans Holbein The Younger: public domain

White Tower at the Tower of London: Padraig.

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