Mushrooms occupy a shadowy world

Mushrooms’ ways are unpredictable, their paths invisible, Charlie Wilkins reports.

I used to wonder at the sight of mushrooms when I was little. Every year, during the shortening days of autumn, my uncle ‘Pakie’ would bring into the kitchen a large basket covered with a tatty muslin cloth.

Slowly, he would unveil it and there on the twisted wicker lay the wide caps and pink gills of horse mushrooms!

It was his seasonal ‘surprise’, a ritual he loved, the gathering of esoteric fungi from the fields behind the Courthouse at Midleton in East Cork.

He worked for the town council and those fields were where his work horses spent their summer nights.

Older now and more understanding of how things grow, I admit to still being intrigued by mushrooms.

They seem to occupy a shadowy world of vegetative growth. Their ways are unpredictable their paths invisible. They appear with the randomness of wild orchids, yet have the substance and savour of true vegetables.

Wild mushrooms should not be confused with two similar, but poisonous fungi — the ‘Destroying Angel’ cap of the New World, and the Death Cap of the Old World. These two fungi are the most dangerous known and very small quantities can cause intense pain and often, death.

There is no truth of course in the old belief that they can be distinguished from the common mushroom by their blackening of a silver spoon!

If these can kill humans, gardeners should learn how to recognise the killer ‘mushroom’ of Honey Fungus (Armillaria mellea) for it destroys untold numbers of garden trees and shrubs each year. Early symptoms include discoloration of the foliage, shoot die-back, and premature autumn leaf fall (all easy to confuse with drought).

Affected specimens may also suffer from bleeding bark or splitting just above ground level, but the most common indications are the fruiting bodies at soil level (illustrated) and black rhizomorphs or ‘bootlaces’ which resemble roots, beneath.

If you suspect honey fungus, peel back the bark on the roots or lower stem of the plant in question. Healthy tissue will be seen white or pink tinged, dead tissue will be brown or black.

If armillaria is the cause, then between the dead bark and the wood a thin layer of tissue which smells strongly of mushrooms will be found.

There are no chemical controls available to the amateur gardener. The best approach is to dig up and remove the diseased plants with as much of their root system as possible.

Any nearby plants showing signs of sickness or die-back should also be lifted and destroyed.

When hedging plants are suspect, remove those that are visibly attacked first, then the neighbouring plants on either side.

Armillaria can be starved out by clearing the affected area of all woody debris, leaving the area fallow or putting it down to grass.

If replanting, choose less-susceptible plants such as yew, lavender or clematis.

WORK FOR THE WEEK

NOVEMBER: is the month of the Holy Souls, a dreary month lacking in light and cheerfulness. All around is dirty, damp and depressing. Leaf sweeping is undertaken on a daily basis so the storing of dahlias will have to wait. Some leaves, like ash, horse-chestnut, and field maple are large, coarse, and dreadfully hard to gather into bundles, especially when wet and clung fast to hard surfaces. They almost need scraping, so the coarser the brush the easier the job becomes. Japanese maples on the other hand are distinctly obliging in that they fall to ground as rolled and curled little balls of marmalade-coloured fluff, weighing all of a micro gram each. An armful can be compressed and disposed of neatly beneath any nearby shrub or tree. Here, the remains of one year will rot into a nourishing food reserve to serve the needs of another.

SCENT: In desperation I now turn to a plant called Coronilla ‘glauca’ which you might like to try in a sheltered corner, for it smells like wallflowers in November, and indeed, in all those months up to and including April. One could easily have this in bloom from November to Easter. The blooms are pale yellow, pea-shape in appearance, and carried in great numbers above foliage which is small and ferny-looking and in total scale with the rather dainty flowers. Growing to less than three feet, it is the ideal candidate for the smaller garden or indeed for those with pots and containers on balconies. Sheltered spots will see it totally happy. It also responds well in lime conditions.

KNOTWEED: Japanese knotweed, that Oriental sycophant (which incidentally won a gold medal at Utretch Flower Show 155 years ago as ‘the most interesting ornamental plant of the year) is a hard and difficult weed to eradicate. Its butter-yellow leaves are strikingly attractive just now and it is dying down in order to re-coup resources for next year’s invasion. Japanese knotweed survives the winter as an underground rhizome. During autumn, the plant draws food stores from the dying foliage and brings it down to its roots. Herbicide treatment, during late summer and autumn, appears (according to the experts) to be the optimum time for treatment to begin. Herbicide is best poured into the hollow stems after these have been reduced to a foot or so in height. However if treating mature canes is likely to cause problems. It should be remembered that (in spring) plenty of green leaves must be present to absorb as much herbicide as possible.

BAMBOO: Confusion plagues the pruning of bamboo. Some allow the plants to grow unhindered, more remove bunches of canes on a yearly basis. Aim for a clump that is open and airy; there should be clear daylight between the bare lower stems and plenty of room for the leafy upper shoots to sway against each other. Normally, one third of all canes are removed yearly. Start by removing the weakest around the perimeter of the clump and things will become clearer as you proceed. Don’t do all the thinning from the edge of the clump, however, the centre must be tackled too as this is where overcrowding is most likely to occur. As you begin to cut into stronger canes, inspect the top-growth on each before removal. Remove those with damaged tops first, going down to soil level in the process and allow the more desirable, vigorous, fully furnished top-shoots to remain. Always insist on cutting the canes as flush as possible to the soil for any snags or bumps you leave behind, will (painfully) hinder your efforts at pruning in the years that follow. If bamboo is ‘running’ all over the place (and coming up where you would rather not’ then apply the herbicide to these growths next spring.

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