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28 Mar 2022

Fabulous fungi sprouting

The recent downpour saw people spotting all kinds of interesting fungi in their gardens and on bushwalks and now autumn is upon us, we're going to see plenty more.

Australian Institute of Botanical Science Chief Botanist Dr Brett Summerell is a fungi expert and around this time every year his phone starts ringing, with people asking him about everything from poisoning cases, to getting him to help identify strange species.

"Over the next few weeks we'll see fungi sprouting when autumn provides the perfect conditions for their growth - not too hot to dry out and die and not too cold," he says.

Bolutellus fungi
Bolutellus fungi. Photo: Brett Summerell

Dr Summerell says it's believed fungi are the second most diverse group of organisms after the insects.

"There are estimates that the number of fungi is somewhere between 1.5 and 5 million different species but there are only around 10,0000 species that have been formally described by scientists (mycologists)," he says.

"So the vast majority are still to be discovered and described – and of course it is likely that huge numbers will go extinct before we even discover and describe them."

Hericium clathroides
Hericium clathroides. Photo: Brett Summerell

While people might not appreciate their importance, Dr Summerell says fungi have an important role to play in the ecosystem.

"Most importantly, they are the great recyclers and decomposers – breaking down organic matter so it becomes accessible for plants to take up," he says.

"If it wasn’t for the fungi, the planet would be covered in masses of dead plant and animal matter. The fungi contain a complex array of enzymes that are able to break down cellulose and lignin – the key chemicals in plants and in timber – into simple chemicals that can be absorbed by plant roots so that they can go more effectively."

Now is also the time when people get adventurous with picking fungi but Dr Summerell warns this should never be done without an expert.

"If people want to go foraging there are companies that provide this," he says. 

Find out more about fungi

You might think you know fungi, but there is so much to discover about the delightful and deadly world of this special group of diverse organisms. Listen to the Garden's Branch Out podcast below featuring Dr Brett Summerell to learn more about poisonous plants.

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