Wild Life Heritage of Uibh Laoire (part 5)




by Ted Cook


For our purposes it is proposed to profile the higher fungi commonly called mushrooms or toadstools as distinct from the lower fungi that include many familiar mould that grow on stale bread and other food stuffs.


Up to recently this barely explored fungal kingdom was considered by biologists as part of the plant kingdom but the way fungi feed without a capacity to harness the sunlight has destined these primitive organisms for distinct classification.


Containing more protein than vegetables and apart from sunlight our only other source of vitamin D, both the German and the French continue a strong tradition of wild fungi use – over three hundred mushrooms are licensed sale and human consumption. In Eastern Europe enormous quantities of fungi (mainly Lactarius deliciousus – see picture 1) are gathered and dries in the natural coniferous forests. Picture 1 was taken in Kilbarry townland in October 2005. Whether such traditions existed in Uibh Laoire in historical times is not difficult to gauge. Not alone because herbalists were one of the listed classes forcibly deported on mass from Ireland during the 1607 “flight of the earls” (Kingston. R). Neither is there mention of large bodied fungi in the dietary codes of the Brehon Laws. And remarkably no reference has survived from the black 1840’s in relation to the 3000 or so edible fungi that occur in Ireland. Albeit, less the 30 species being toxic.

Fungi have played a central role in human civilisation. Their fermentations have given us bread, wine and Beer. The penicillium mould remains one of several antibiotic derived from fungi.

2005 marked an excellent year for mushrooms. Long dry summer stretches and an autumn that saw soil temperatures averaging 11°C, and air temperatures holding at 20°C and continuing into November coupled with inordinately high rainfalls in Uibh Laoire. Perfect conditions for the Shaggy Ink Cap (or Lawyers Wig –Picture 2) at an unimproved upland pasture and for the “Plums and Custard Mushroom” growing on a conifer stump (Picture 3). “Puff Ball” in picture 4 covers almost the entire under canopy of a young oak and appeared overnight during late September.

This has certainly been  the year of the “Antabuse Ink Cap”-Picture 5 -occurring in gardens and fields, near hedgerows and in the vicinity of deciduous tree stumps. This fungus, although edible, causes sickness if eaten with alcohol and has provided chemical in progressively necessary Antabuse Medication. Both the Field and Horse Mushrooms (Picture 6 & 7) are occasional upon open grassland, pastures and hillsides throughout the parish though absent on intensively managed farmland as are most toadstools. Both can grow in fairy rings and are one and the same as the commercially produced varieties.

It is reckoned that half of all insects live on dead and rotting wood including twiggy debris lying along field boundaries and roadsides and on old decaying trees. At Boylesgrove’s Oakwood (Droumcarra South) each autumn two kilograms on average of leaves, bark, twigs, fruits and nuts fall on each square metre of the wood floor. And by the following late spring/summer the forest floor is ship shape –with progressive relays of primrose, wood anemone, bluebell, Irish spurge etc –a combination of fungi and insects have been at work to decompose the litter –the foundation of soils worldwide.

Without fungi as Bellamy says, life would choke on its own waste reminding us that ecology on our pilgrim planet evolves on the fragile balance between growth and decay.


Fungal Functions


The root systems of the fungi commonly found on farmland or in the forest are called mycelia (mycelium for singular) resembling a mesh of threads growing outwards from the mushroom (fruiting body) at a rate of up to two inches each day.

Radio active labelling experiments confirm that nitrogen, phosphorous and calcium are carried via the mycelia to the feeding roots of virtually all plant life including farm crops, trees and wild plants. as yet the mode of transfer of nutrients and water to host grasses etc from the =fungal web is not well understood. The Centre for Ecology and Hydrology at Edinburgh has established that extensive damage to mycelia results from excess application of inorganic fertiliser and pesticides. Equally important is the mycelial function as a “safety net” in that the fungal threads search for nutrients for their host plants and by interception the minerals released from the litter on the soil surface the fungi prevent dissolved minerals from leaching out and polluting our ground waters.

Additional benefits from out toadstools include efficient transport of water to dry soils- consider water requirements of our marram grass of our coastal sand dunes.

Foresters only know too well of the root disease P. cinnamoni, and the role of fungal sheaths that present physical barriers against root infections and furthermore fungi produce soluble antibiotics that are active against a host of soil borne “nasties”.

New research in the US has shown that a cubic inch of soil contains more that one mile of mycelial threads and the one ounce of healthy soil hosts thousands of different fungal species.

One simple example of a fungus enjoying a mutually beneficial arrangement with our silver birch is the scarlet Fly Agaric (very poisonous) see picture 8, widespread in hedgerows where birch occurs.

Other examples of fungi include Death Cap (fatal) found around oaks and beeches (see picture 9); Blusher (edible) (Pic 10) found in coniferous forests; Blewit (pic 11) associated with grassland and sometimes available in shops; Foxy Spot (pic 12) associated with heathy bracken; Saint Georges Mushroom (Pic 13) a spring time fungus associated with April the 23rd or St. Georges feast day; Entoloma Toadstool (Pic 14) another springtime fungus common in garden soils and long hawthorn hedgerows.

Because fungi cannot photosynthesise (convert sunlight into energy) they instead release enzymes to digest complex molecules present in dead wood and animal matter and converting them into solutions that can be up-taken by the plant kingdom – in exchange for plant carbohydrates that the fungi cannot otherwise access. The group of fungi known as Polypores mostly grow on wood and form solitary or tiered bracket like structures and can be spotted growing far up tree trunks. They are parasitic on associated host plants and include Birch Bracket (Pic 15); Dryads Saddle (Pic 16); Beef Steak Fungus (Pic 17); Inonotus Fungus (pic 18) and Ganoderma (pic 19). Finally the Oyster fungus (Pic 20) of dead branch stubs.


Polypores function as decomposers mainly on injured or damaged hardwoods eg oak, ash, birch, elm, sycamore and walnut. Polypores  possess powerful chemical enzymes to convert the locked up nutrients into a soluble form for transport into the forest floor mycelial web for further transport along the hedgerows and unfertilised corridors for a radius of several kilometres.

The introductory picture to this piece records a very common parasitic fungus the Honey fungus or Bootlace fungus which behaves like a ploypore but occurs mormally around the base of the main trunk below 50 cms and renders trees very liable to wind blow. Readers are advised to keep a lookout for Honey fungus along roadside trees for obvious reasons particularly large top heavy beech.

In conclusion a UN report on the condition of our global environment finds that our earth has lost 30% of its entire natural resources in the last 25 years –and the report was dated 1999.

Uibh Laoire’s most precious resources for the upkeep of life are its waters and its soils both of which are the foundation of ecological stability and vitality and are inextricably connected to the fungal wellbeing of the Lee Valley Catchment area. The single most damaging assault on this “trinity” is posed by releasing dioxins.

“We should learn from our elders; native peoples worldwide have viewed fungi as spiritual allies” (P. Stamets in Whole Earth, 1999).


Ted Cook

(Heritage Specialist)

Supported by The Heritage Council