Although a week may be a long time in politics, it can also be a long time in the natural world. This is most apparent in spring or autumn, when seasonal changes can happen very rapidly.
Just a week ago the sun was shining and there were lots of leaves on the trees. Today it is raining (although still very warm for November) and many leaves have fallen from the trees in my part of the world.
Fungi are classified by the way their spores are dispersed. In the “higher fungi” (sub-kingdom Dikarya), the Basidiomycota (basidiomycetes) have spores perched on top of an inflated, balloon-like structure called a basidium, while the Ascomycota (ascomycetes) squirt their spores out of little pockets known as asci.
Jelly Babies are a type of ascomycete fungi. The fruit bodies of Leotia lubrica grow up to six centimetres (2.4 inches) tall, with a cap up to 1.2 centimetres (half an inch) across. They often grow in groups. The caps are slimy and furrowed or twisted and ours were an olive-green colour, although they can be golden yellow or even orange as well. The stalk is usually mostly hollow, though it can be filled with gel. The English name comes from an obvious resemblance to jelly baby sweets (as James Emerson demonstrates in his blog). Other names include lizard tuft, the ochre jelly club, the slippery cap, the green slime fungus and the gumdrop fungus. The specific name lubrica means slimy.
The species is described as “common but localised” in Britain and Ireland and is also found throughout much of mainland Europe and in North America, as well as in eastern Asia, China, Tibet, New Zealand and Australia. The fungus is usually found in woodland among moss or plant debris, feeding on decaying plant material. Ours were in grass, near a large beech tree but not directly beneath its canopy.
Opinions vary as to whether Jelly Baby fungi are edible. The consensus seems to be that they are bland and uninteresting, although the American mycologist Charles McIlvaine (1840–1909) thought they were good to eat. This is not necessarily a recommendation – he also ate many other species that are considered to be inedible or poisonous, such as The Sickener, Russula emetica. This earned him the nickname of “Ole Ironguts”.
Autumn’s steady march has mostly covered the Earlham Cemetery Jelly Babies in beech leaves and their caps and stalks are rapidly returning to the earth from which they came, spores dispersed, job done. The bulk of Leotia lubrica remains beneath the ground as a mycelium, ready to produce its weird and wonderful fruit bodies in future years.
Thanks to Ian Senior for finding these fungi in the first place and to James Emerson for passing on directions on how to find them.