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Greenwich Park volunteers and keen locals recently joined fungi expert Andy Overall for a mushroom identification workshop.

The workshop was the second wildlife-themed training offered as part of the Greenwich Park Revealed project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. In the summer volunteers learnt how to identify bats with the Bat Conservation Trust, and next spring we will be running further training.

The training sessions are part of wider surveys which will inform the biodiversity enhancements that Greenwich Park Revealed aims to deliver.

So what’s so special about fungi?

Well for a start, fungi aren’t plants – weirdly they are more closely related to humans! Fungi are everywhere, even in the sea, and they are vital to the ecosystem – without them, life on planet Earth would grind to a halt. They are also pretty tasty and not just in a fry up; bread, beer, soy sauce, salami and chocolate are all fermented by fungus.

Then there are medical mushrooms, mushrooms that glow in the dark and even mushrooms with hallucinogenic properties, not to mention the world’s largest known organism – a single honey fungus in Michigan that covers nearly 40 acres, weighs nearly 10 tonnes and is around 1,500 years old. Fascinating indeed…

Fungi can be divided into three types based on their dietary preferences

Recyclers

The majority of fungi are recyclers, breaking down dead plants and returning nutrients to the soil. Some fungi can absorb or break down harmful substances. Oyster mushrooms can be used to clear land contaminated with diesel and heavy metals. Recently a plastic eating fungus was discovered in a landfill site in Pakistan.

Mycorrhizal

Mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic relationships with trees and other plants. Fungi have fine, web-like 'roots' called mycelium which can cover huge distances, absorbing water and breaking down complex chemicals into digestible forms. This mycelium intermingles with the plant’s roots providing it with vital nutrients that it could not get on its own. Most plants are dependent on fungi for their survival, so plentiful fungi are a sign of a healthy ecosystem.

Parasitic

Finally, a few fungi are parasitic, damaging or killing living cells. Honey fungus may be a tasty mushroom but it is the gardener’s scourge, killing a wide range of plants and trees.

However, expert Andy pointed out that tree rotting is a natural process and that trees that have their heartwood hollowed out by fungal decay continue to grow and are better able to withstand strong winds. Greenwich Park’s veteran chestnuts are certainly testament to that.




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