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Beech: when fungi attack

October 15, 2013

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’.


notice anything odd where the boughs separate?

notice anything odd in its silhouette, where the main boughs divide?


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.


A photo taken in the leafless winter shows it most clearly

A photo taken in the leafless winter shows it most clearly


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.,15.10.13-3


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.,15.10.13-3


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.,15.10.13-9


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.,15.10.13-5


Close up, they would be rather attractive if their profusion were not so sinister.,15.10.13-6


‘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.,15.10.13-7


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.,15.10.13-8



Thinking of the ‘slow, oozing growth’ of beeches, you might like The serpent-rooted beech; or you can find another singular tree with a strange split in its trunk in ‘the living dead’.

21 Comments leave one →
  1. boyd hussey, (Douglas Ontario Canada) permalink
    October 16, 2013 1:27 am

    i thought you meant the silhouette of the face.

  2. hmunro permalink
    October 16, 2013 1:32 am

    I can’t quite bring myself to “like” this post, because it (likely) brings such sad news. I suppose it’s unlikely that the fungus expert in Edinburgh will come back with a less sinister diagnosis — but I’m keeping my fingers crossed just in case. Long live the holey beech!

  3. Toffeeapple permalink
    October 16, 2013 5:40 pm

    It will be very sad if it is Honey fungus. I am so sad that it might be so.

    • October 16, 2013 8:54 pm

      I suppose the good news is that if anyone can give us good advice on what to do next, it will be our friends at the Edinburgh Botanics.

  4. October 16, 2013 8:48 pm

    Too bad for the tree, but the fungus looks really interesting. Is it edible? That would be really great…it’s labeled as “Choice” on wikipedia.

    • October 16, 2013 8:55 pm

      It is rather beautiful, isn’t it? It looks very edible, but most sources say that it definitely isn’t. The ‘honey’ refers to the colour rather than the taste.

  5. October 16, 2013 9:53 pm

    Oh no, I do so hope not, for the trees’ sake and for yours. What with tens of thousands of larches being felled all over Wales because of a fungal infection and ash-die back disease spreading seemingly inexorably, it sometimes seems as though we won’t have any trees left soon. 😦

    • October 17, 2013 10:05 pm

      I know, there is so much desperate news about tree diseases at the moment. I just can’t bear to think too much about worst case scenarios.

  6. October 17, 2013 12:22 pm

    That is a really insidious looking fungus, especially where it has burst open the bark. Are you allowed to control it to save the tree, or do you have to let nature take its course? I am also intrigued by the hole in the trunk. I am sure this would have been seen as a magical feature in centuries gone by!

    • October 17, 2013 10:08 pm

      The fungus is grim in its power, isn’t it? I think this particular tree is probably a goner. As to what we can do to contain the spread of the fungus to other trees, I don’t yet know, but I do hope we will get some advice.

      When I see the hole, I think of Celtic handfasting ceremonies. The hole is now a good 20 feet off the ground, but I wonder if it was already there when it was at head height, and whether it was ever used for such things. Unlikely, but it would be nice to think so. 🙂

      • October 18, 2013 7:05 am

        That’s a real shame, to lose such a lovely tree. I hope that you can help the others survive, if they are infected.

        I agree that a hole 20 feet off the ground would be inconvenient for a hand-fasting ceremony! Perhaps the squirrels can use it instead?!

  7. October 17, 2013 10:17 pm

    These are some great shots, tho fungus isn’t as bad as you think, tree cant cope with out fungi as they eat away the dead tissue of the tree, trees don’t die because of fungus, fungus just helps to recycle the tree, for future trees, the circle of life starts all over again, great blog and interesting post 🙂

  8. October 22, 2013 4:59 pm

    Oh my – this is such a fairy tree with the “window”.
    While the fungi is intriguing and pretty, it’s a threat. (Is that something often seen in life? Dangerous beauty?)
    Do hope there’s a solution

    • October 27, 2013 3:38 pm

      The natural world is full of dangerous beauty, I’d say. It’s not as tame as we like to think.

  9. claredouglasyesthatone! permalink
    October 27, 2013 10:39 am

    We’ve got a willow tree on an island in the middle of the river next to the bank where we hand-fasted…..and it’s holey! I thought it would be good for the Celtic tradition of passing babies through the tree for naming ceremonies. I agree that the beech tree’s hole is a little high, and maybe not wide enough! I wonder if you got up high enough and looked through it you could see another dimension on the other side….!!

    • October 27, 2013 3:43 pm

      Hello Clareyesthatone, welcome! 🙂
      How interesting that you know of a holey willow. I bet there are other holey trees out there. The hole in this beech is just the right size for hands/ wrists, but much too small for babies. They’d get stuck, like Winnie the Pooh in Rabbit’s burrow!
      Now you’ve got me wondering, though. Do I dare climb up to look through the hole…and what would I find if I looked through it? Would I see the Elves that may have been here all along..? And would I be struck blind for looking? Oh, there is a story in this…

  10. November 25, 2013 2:35 am

    just wondering what was the verdict on the fungus?

    • December 3, 2013 11:19 pm

      Hello, sorry, I’ve just noticed your query here. Thanks for asking.
      Well, the chaps at the Botanics say that it is undoubtedly honey fungus. The tree is done for and we need to chop it down: this fungus feeds on dead wood, so we need to reduce its food source in order to help prevent its spread. I was relieved, though, that the Botanics people did not see the fungus as an undue threat to the rest of the (healthy) trees in these woods. Fingers crossed!

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