Marvellous ‘mushrooms’

Rainy is Shirley Kerr’s preferred kind of weather – it means her favourite plants are lifting up their heads and “fruiting”.

Shirley is a keen amateur mycologist (someone who studies fungi) who likes nothing better than heading off to the bush in damp conditions to try and spot something new for her extensive photo collection.

It was her love of photography that brought her to fungi – natural history photos entered into Tauranga Camera Club competitions had to be properly named – and it was someone she met while trying to identify a fungus that introduced the retired Athenree relief teacher to a whole new world.

“He introduced me to the annual New Zealand Fungal Forays run by Landcare Research, and I discovered there were a lot of others who were mad keen on fungi.” This year’s foray was  based around Matawai on East Cape and took place from May 12-18.

Fungus at McLaren Falls Park. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Shirley has regularly attended forays around New Zealand, has been to Australia to look for fungi and has her own website of photographs and information.

“It’s good to go to another area,” she says of the forays, which comprise of a day out photographing and collecting and evenings spent on identification – with always one or two rarities emerging.

`”We’ve got a bit of native beech in the Kaimai Range, but in the South Island you get several varieties of beech in one place – and where’s there beech, there’s interesting miconzal fungus.”

Shirley says there’s probably been about 9000 New Zealand fungi named and there’s probably that many again waiting to be found and named.

“They definitely need a moist environment. They won’t fruit unless conditions are right.”

But, she quickly adds, all that’s needed to get interested in fungi is a good pair of eyes and an inquiring mind.

Photographed in Puketoki Reserve, Whakamarama. Photo: Sandra Simpson

“There’s plenty of interest that pops up in lawns, although they tend to be drably coloured. Ileodictyon cibarium [basket fungus] can appear in bark mulch. It starts out as an ‘egg’ then out this odd thing pops.

“There’s always something beside the track in the bush. You don’t have to go searching for them. I’d never seen a Hygrocybe conica [blackening waxcap] until a few years ago – then a year or two later I spotted some in my own street frontage.”

She has found the only pink enteloma in New Zealand, although the professional mycologists want to see if another one turns up before they record it as a separate species, and Shirley also found an Entoloma congregatum, only the second one ever to be recorded in this country.

She uses a 1:1 macro lens to record her finds and spends a lot of time on her hands and knees in the bush. “I have a bad habit of keeping my eyes down, when there’s just as much to see on tree trunks – and you don’t have to stray off the tracks to make good finds.”

The vibrant colour of the fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) serves as a danger warning. This fungus is highly toxic. Photo: Sandra Simpson

She was intrigued, but not surprised, that a fungi garden had won the supreme award at Ellerslie International Flower Show in 2010 – the Hygrocybe family are known in Europe as “the orchids of the field”, thanks to their bright colours, although in New Zealand they are not found in grassland, only bush. (The link leads to a news video which shows something of the garden. For reasons best known to the internet I can’t load up any of my own photos of the garden!)

“The garden probably opened people’s eyes to how beautiful fungi can be,” Shirley says.

Taranaki pioneer Chew Chong established a lucrative export trade in wood ear fungus (Auricularia polytricha), which became known as “Taranaki wool” and was regarded as a delicacy in China, but, says Shirley, there are very few examples of edible native fungi.

“Some were known to be eaten by the Maori, but probably only in times of severe food shortages. I’ve tried a couple and they’re not very nice.”

In the Western Bay of Plenty, Shirley recommends Puketoki Reserve (Whakamarama), the short loop track at Aongatete Forest (end of Wright Rd) and McLaren Falls Park for fungi spotting. Don’t handle or eat anything you have not definitively identified. Most fungi in New Zealand are not safe to eat.

To see more of Shirley Kerr’s photographs go to her website Kaimai Bush which also includes sections on lichen, native orchids and mosses.

This article first appeared in the Bay of Plenty Times and is reproduced here with permission.

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