Beech: when fungi attack
Did I ever mention that beeches are my favourite trees? (Apart from all the other favourites, obviously.) There is one in the nearest patch of woods which is rather special. For some time I’ve thought it would make a good ‘Tuesday Tree’.
What is notable about this particular beech is this. Wandering through the woods one day a year or two ago, I noticed that its main limbs have grown in such a way that there is a hole in it, straight through the middle of its trunk.
The endless variety of trees never fails to intrigue me. Beeches grow in such a way that you can almost – almost – see their slow, oozing growth, and imagine how roots and limbs slither against and over each other, forming ridges and crevices and even, occasionally, holes.
But alas and alack, this singular holey beech attracted my attention this week for a far more sinister reason. It is, I have realised, being attacked by a fungus of monstrous proportions.
In the photo above, you can see not only two enormous patches of toadstools (my first thought on seeing them from a distance was that they were giant wasp nests) but also a patch of raw trunk below them. This, I think, is where earlier eruptions of toadstools have burst through the bark and blistered it off, as the current patches are now doing with frightening force.
The older toadstools – darker and more cracked and leathery – are smaller than the fresh ones.My suspicion is that the fungus has been attacking the tree for some time without us noticing. This beech is several yards down a slope from the main path through the wood, so we normally see it from a certain distance rather than walking right beside it. Small heads of fungi on the trunk could have been easily overlooked.
However, the unusually long dry spell of weather over the summer this year, ending in some much wetter days in the past fortnight or so, has perhaps given ideal growing conditions to the fungus. It has thus thrown out the huge patch of bright toadstools which attracted my attention.
Close up, they would be rather attractive if their profusion were not so sinister.
‘What on earth is this?’ I asked friends on Facebook. And a suggestion came back from Italy almost immediately: Armillaria mellea, known in English as honey fungus.
If this is indeed honey fungus, then it is potentially extremely bad news. Honey fungus spreads underground, making it very difficult to contain. It could already be affecting other trees – oak, beech, chestnut – in this beautiful patch of woodland. It is almost certainly killing the ‘holey’ beech.
We are awaiting a definite identification from the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh, whose fungus expert is on the case. Meanwhile, I am enjoying the canopy of the poor, afflicted, holey beech while I can.