Current weather patterns mean that we oscillate between sunny but very chilly conditions followed by much milder and wetter conditions and at this time of year it might be assumed that there is nothing of interest to see in the natural world. However, there are both signs of winter and spring.
Through the autumn one might expect to see a variety of fungi when out for a walk, so it may seem strange to be writing about fungi in late January and early February. However, there is one winter specialist that appears in December through to February, and it seems to be most conspicuous when conditions are frosty.
This is the velvet shank, which it is a ‘rotter’ feeding on decaying wood. It can be seen on decaying tree stumps or on the trunks of growing trees which signals that there is either some internal decay or damage. Troops of these glistening orange mushrooms shrug off the coldest of conditions. As its name suggests, the stem is velvety while its scientific name, Flammulina velutipes, translates as ‘little flames with velvet legs’ which is rather charming. Their glistening glossy orange colour certainly brightens up a woodlands walk at this time of year.
It is obviously sensible to leave fungi alone in the wild unless you are really experienced, confident and expert, as there are some seriously toxic species out there and velvet shank has a passing similarity to the ominously named funeral bell. The funeral bell contains the same deadly toxins as the deathcap and the destroying angel, so it is probably wise to stick to those large white field and horse mushrooms that appear in grasslands during the autumn or to shop bought varieties.
Velvet shank is an edible fungus, and it has been cultivated in Japan for at least three hundred years. Originally it was grown on rotting wood but in today’s modern industrialised society it is grown inside plastic bottles and looks very different to those growing in the wild. These cultivated shanks can be sourced in shops as ‘Enokitake’ or simply ‘Enoki’. However, while the above may taste very good, the Japanese also have some unusual tastes in fungi as the nickname of one edible slime mould that they find attractive translates as ‘dog vomit’.