The secret world of fungi

Blog post by Norfolk Wildlife Trust on 18 Sep, 2020
What do you think of when you hear the word fungi? For some thoughts might turn to mouth-watering mushrooms, carefully foraged from a supermarket shelf. For others it might conjure images of fairy tales, pixies perched proudly on the red and white caps of towering toadstools. But there’s so much more to these otherworldly organisms than meets the eye.

Fungi come in all kinds of shapes and sizes, from the familiar mushrooms to cups, balls and brackets. But these bizarre structures that we’re used to seeing are just the fruiting bodies, which usually only pop up once or twice a year. Like the fruits of a tree, these are temporary, short-lived parts of the larger organism. Their only job is to help the fungus spread. 

Bird's-nest orchid, by Les Binns

Puffballs, by Amy Lewis

They do this by releasing microscopic spores, which need to be dispersed in the same way as seeds from a tree and are often spread by the wind. Some fungi fire out their spores like a cannon, launching them into the air. The puffball is a common species well known for its explosive release of spores – when a mature mushroom is compressed by rain, a passing animal or an inquisitive human finger, it puffs out a cloud of spores from a hole in the top.

The main part of the fungus, the part that lives on long after the toadstools have toppled, is hidden within the substrate that the fruiting body grows from, whether that’s the soil, rotting wood, dung or even nuts and seeds. It’s a dense, tangled network of threads (called hyphae) that together are known as a mycelium.

These networks can stretch for metres (or in rare cases miles) through the soil, connecting fungi to the roots of trees, grasses and other plants. In most cases, it’s a win-win relationship: the fungus gives the plant nutrients from the soil and the plant supplies the fungus with carbohydrates formed through photosynthesis (the process of making energy from sunlight). Together, they form an underground internet sometimes known as the Wood Wide Web. 

The Wood Wide Web can do some incredible things. It’s a social network through which trees can share sugars and nutrients with other trees, as well as with the fungi themselves. But it can also be used to send information. Studies have shown that when a tree is under attack, from a harmful fungus or insects like aphids, it can send out a warning to nearby trees through the mycelium, giving them chance to prepare and defend themselves against attack.

Bird's-nest orchid, by Les Binns

Bird's-nest orchid, by Les Binns

But just like the internet, it has a darker side, too. Some plants have found a way to exploit it; they have become hackers. The bird’s-nest orchid is a sickly-looking species by the colourful standards of its family. It grows in caramel-coloured spires in the shaded depths of woodlands and has no chlorophyll, so can’t photosynthesise to produce food like most plants. Instead, it sucks all it needs from the fungal mycelium that connects its own roots to those of the other plants growing around it, giving nothing in return.

Next time you spot a toadstool sprouting from grass, or a bracket clinging to the bark of a rotting branch, spare a moment to think about the hidden network sprawling beneath your feet, connecting the forest and breathing life into the trees. 

Header image: Fly agaric by Jon Hawkins – Surrey Hills Photography

Share this

Latest Blog Posts

Good for us, Good for Nature Good for us, Good for Nature
by Robert Morgan on 13 May, 2021
Take a stroll with us for National Walking Month Take a stroll with us for N...
by Chloe Webb on 06 May, 2021
International Dawn Chorus Day 2021 International Dawn Chorus D...
by Robert Morgan on 29 Apr, 2021
The Humble House Sparrow The Humble House Sparrow
by Tom Hibbert on 15 Apr, 2021
Bishop's Garden March Update: A Haven for Birds Bishop's Garden March Updat...
by Barry Madden on 01 Apr, 2021
Meet our Diversity Intern Meet our Diversity Intern
by Meg Watts on 25 Mar, 2021
Growing Wild in the City Growing Wild in the City
by Sam Garland on 11 Mar, 2021
International Women's Day 2021: Women in conservation International Women's Day 2...
by Meg Watts on 08 Mar, 2021
World Book Day 2021 World Book Day 2021
by Chloe Webb on 04 Mar, 2021
Identifying diving ducks Identifying diving ducks
by The Wildlife Trusts on 11 Jan, 2021
Remembering Richard Waddingham – farmer and pond conservationist Remembering Richard Wadding...
by Helen Baczkowska on 17 Dec, 2020
Wild verges Wild verges
by Sam Brown on 08 Dec, 2020
Thwaite Common bird box project Thwaite Common bird box pro...
by John Snape on 30 Nov, 2020
Jewels of the autumn Jewels of the autumn
by Ian Senior on 20 Nov, 2020
Walking again at Thorpe Marshes Walking again at Thorpe Mar...
by Chris Durdin on 06 Nov, 2020
Living with spiders Living with spiders
by Norfolk Wildlife Trust on 24 Oct, 2020
In praise of the humble briar In praise of the humble briar
by Robert Morgan on 30 Sep, 2020
Rockpooling at West Runton Rockpooling at West Runton
by Isabelle Mudge on 28 Sep, 2020
White herons: A pleasure to see – a warning to heed White herons: A pleasure to...
by Robert Morgan on 17 Sep, 2020
Norwich Nature Notes – August Norwich Nature Notes – August
by Roger and Jenny Jones on 14 Sep, 2020
Help for hogs Help for hogs
by Helen Baczkowska on 31 Aug, 2020
The magic of Thompson Common The magic of Thompson Common
by Barry Madden on 29 Aug, 2020
The Great British Snake Off The Great British Snake Off
by Tom Hibbert on 24 Aug, 2020
Grazing goats Grazing goats
by Robert Morgan on 17 Aug, 2020