The fungi are fruiting. In the mountains to our west and south, saffron-coloured pine mushrooms are popping through the fallen pine needles, promising great fry-ups. Less deliciously, in my own garden, smelly, slimy red stinkhorns are making their eerie, oozy appearance. I also have brown, earthstars, well-camouflaged atop the mulch.
Other gardeners might notice the red, starfish-shaped sea anemone fungus, Aseroe rubra, which was the first fungus described in Australia. That was back in 1792 and we’ve barely touched the surface since. Dr Brett Summerell, director of science and conservation at the Botanic Gardens and Centennial Parklands, has long had an interest in mycology, the study of fungi. He reckons that a square metre of well-mulched garden is likely to be home to hundreds, and possibly thousands, of species of fungi, the vast majority unknown to science. If you fancy naming things as a personal legacy, mycology is the place to be, with an estimated 90 per cent of species yet to be named. (And here’s a tip if you’re heading that way- unlike the rest of us mycologists pronounce fungi with a soft ‘g’, as in elegy and long ‘i’ as in ice. Both pronunciations are correct, but ‘funjeye’ is like a secret handshake among experts.)
Our level of ignorance about fungi is surprising given how reliant we are on these organisms for our survival. “They break down organic matter, build the soils, and create the nutrients which feed the plants,” explains Summerell. “Mycorrhizal fungi also have relationships with flowering plant roots, extending the plant’s ability to extract nutrients and water from the soil.” By providing a basis for plant life, fungi provide for us.
Fungi are also the reason we are painfully shifting gears away from fossil fuels. Back in the old days, some 300 million years ago, fungi started evolving enzymes that could break down lignin, the ‘glue’ that helps hold trees together. That meant that the huge deposits of carbon that over time became oil and coal were no longer laid down. Depending how you look at it, by making fossil fuels a finite resource, the fungi either saved our future, or ate it.
And while in the mood to marvel, consider that the world’s largest living organism, known as the Humungous Fungus, is a single colony of Armillaria solidipes that covers 9.6 square kilometres of the Malheur National Forest in Oregon in the US, and is somewhere 1,900 and 8,650 years old. Armillaria solidipes is typical of the two-faced nature of fungi. It can be a tree pathogen – the Humongous Fungus was identified as the culprit in a mysterious and massive epidemic of dieback in the forest – yet it’s also known as the honey mushroom, and is edible, as long as it’s cooked.
Some gardeners worry about the stinky fungi and spooky earthstars in their gardens and want to know how to get rid of them. There’s no need. They are signs of biological good health. Ignore the smell, and the flies, and instead admire, photograph and study the pop-ups and give yourself credit for producing healthy, fungus-rich soils.
Photos on this post are by fungiphile photographer Alison Pouliot. Join her in workshop introducing the Curious Kingdom of Fungi in Albury on May 9,12 or 14.
It’s time to
Maureen Martin and Keith Smith propagate plants to raise funds for the National Breast Cancer Foundation. They have a big sale tomorrow, of more than 300 varieties from abutilons to zebra grass. 45 Parklands Avenue, Lane Cove North, 10 am to 4pm. More: thepropagatinggardener.com.au
Clumps of agapanthus that are outgrowing their spot can be divided now. If the clump becomes overgrown, the tangled mass of roots make it very difficult to shift, but if you do it reasonably often it’s a much easier job and they’ll flower better for not being squeezed.
Bowral’s autumn garden weekend features six cool climate gardens and a plant fair at the new Southern Highlands Botanic Gardens. It’s on next weekend, April 23 and 24. Find garden details and buy tickets at www.shbg.com.au
Try freesia, jonquils, lachenalia and ipheion in a sunny spot in pots or garden beds. Wait until the weather is colder before panting out tulips or hyacinths.