Autumn is the best time to go in search of fungi
Fungi are so different from other organisms that taxonomists classify them in their own separate group, the ‘Kingdom of Fungi’. It’s a strange and curious kingdom, inhabited by oddly-shaped and often brightly-coloured species that pop up seemingly out of nowhere during autumn, then disappear again. Included are moulds, slimes, jellies, mildews, puffballs, yeasts, mushrooms and toadstools.
Unlike plants, fungi can’t photosynthesise light into sugar, and instead obtain their energy and nutrients from breaking down decaying material using enzymes. Along with legions of invertebrates, fungi play a vital role ensuring nutrients and minerals are recycled in nature. Together, they are the organisms of rot and decay.
New Zealand has hundreds of species of fungi. Autumn is the time to see most, when the moisture and temperatures seem to favour the appearance of their fruiting bodies best. Too many species inhabit our forests to mention here, but I’ve profiled some of the more conspicuous or colourful.
Violet pouch fungus, sometimes known as the tobacco pouch fungus, may be small, not much bigger than your thumb, but its vivid purple hue makes it stand out in the green of the forest. It grows in the leaf litter beneath beech tress, throughout the country, and appears between April and June.
The aptly named sky blue mushroom stands out in the mixed podocarp/broadleaf or beech forests not only because of its vivid hue, but because blue is a very uncommon colour in nature. They appear in the corner of New Zealand’s $50 note, along with kokako, which have a similar blue in their wattles. Sky blue mushrooms grow on the forest floor, appearing between April and June.
Perhaps the most striking fungi is the stinkhorn fungus. With pink tentacle-like arms radiating from a trunk-like column, it’s a strange shape, but its repulsive smell is perhaps even more noticeable. Flies attracted to the smelly mucus help spread its spores. It grows in the leaf litter of beech forests throughout New Zealand, and fruits between February and May.
Another curious fungus is the beech strawberry, which is about the size of a golf ball. This parasitic fungus can kill the branches of the silver beech trees it infests, and the fruiting body appears between September and February. Like its host, this is a Gondwanan genus, and in Patagonia a similar species parasites Antarctic beech.
Bog Inn Track, Pureora Forest Park, King Country
This short track to a rustic hut, built for forest research in the 1960s, provides good opportunities to see both stinkhorn and sky blue mushroom fungi. Allow 40min from the Bog Inn Road.
Te Iringa Track, Kaimanawa Forest Park, Taupo
The track up to Te Iringa begins from a campsite beside Clements Mill Road. The area boats some of the finest stands of red beech forest in the country, and the benched track is a delightful way to enjoy an autumn ramble.
Tobacco pouch fungi often grow among the moss or leaf letter at the base of these stately trees. Allow 1-2hr each way.
Orongorongo Valley, Rimutaka Forest Park, Wellington
During autumn, all sort of fungi inhabit the banks beside the Orongorongo Track. This very popular track begins from the Catchpole, and leads into the Orongorongo River. Allow 2hr each way.
Klondyke Valley, Victoria Forest Park, West Coast
One of the largest fungi I’ve seen (pictured) was in this pleasant beech-clad valley near Springs Junction. Landcare Research scientist Peter Buchanan told me it is probably the native Bondarzewia berkeleyi. Bondarzewia (pronounced bondartzaivia) are, according to Buchanan a wood decay fungus “living on the dead root material of mature beech trees”.
The Klondyke Valley Track provides access from Rahu Saddle to the tops of the southern Victoria Range. Allow about 2hr each way.