10 June 2015
Guardian Country Diary 10 June 2015 first published in The Guardian
Chaos fungorum - the secret of immortality (tastes like chicken, apparently)
An old yew tree above the holloway has a bright yellow growth emerging from its trunk. This brilliant, sulphur-yellow, stuff seems weirdly at odds with the shadowy woods of early summer. The vividness is caused by the fungusLaetiporus sulphureus, aka “chicken of the woods”. The name is derived from its flavour, apparently.
We had gone to the gardens at Morville Hall, near Bridgnorth, a few miles away. It’s a country house owned by the National Trust but with gardens that are managed by individual tenants. One of the plots is the Dower House garden, which was created by Katherine Swift. It’s a real joy, particularly when the old roses and wild flowers are out.
The distinctive yellow of the chicken of the woods drew us to another, ancient, yew tree. This one, like the holloway yew on Wenlock Edge, is also a lone tree overlooking a valley. The fungus looks like foam insulation extruding from inside the tree under pressure. The little brackets are beginning to form from the sulphurous mass and will, according to the fungi forays blog, soon be ready to pick and cook.
But I hope these will be left where they are, they look so spectacular. They are too beautiful to be malevolent – and yet the fungus is eating the tree from the inside causing brown cube rot.
Lesser trees can keel over in high winds if their centres rot but yews need to hollow out, remaking their architecture so they can live forever.
The fungus itself looks rubbery, appearing neither animal nor plant; Linnaeus, in the 18th century, called this type Chaos fungorum. And the German botanist Otto von Münchhausen, a contemporary of Linnaeus, claimed fungal bodies were just the homes of innumerable small animals.
Looked at closely you could see that the waving surface of the fungus was inhabited by flies, animals that depend on the growths for their existence.
This is a bright yellow expanding universe that will end in autumn outside, but continue its pact with immortality inside the yew tree.