Last month I wrote about the Piggyback Rosegill, Volvariella surrecta, which was a new species for me.
Another new find this autumn has been the Fenugreek Stalkball, Phleogena faginea, pictured above, which I’ve now seen twice.
My first encounter with the species was in Train Wood in Norwich, on a fungal foray in late October. It was growing inside a rotting Sycamore stump and was difficult to photograph, but a week later it was also growing on the outside of the stump and I managed to have a better look and take some photographs. Today I saw more of it, this time on a dying Whitebeam tree in Earlham Cemetery, also in Norwich.
Fenugreek Stalkball is a small fungus that grows in troops or swarms on the trunks of living or dead deciduous trees, bursting out through the bark. It may be small, but it is well worth a closer look – and smell.
The name “stalkball” comes from the appearance of the fungus: each of its fruit bodies consists of a round head on top of a short stalk. The head and stalk are dirty white in younger specimens (as in my photograph) but become a darker grey with age. A closer look with the aid of a hand lens reveals that the surface of each head is dull and covered with irregular pits. A microscope will let you see its spores; I recommend the lovely high magnification photographs by Malcolm Storey on the Discover Life website.
The “fenugreek” part of the name refers to its smell. If you sniff the fungus in situ on a cold day, you probably won’t notice anything. But if you put a few fruit bodies in a small pot and take it home or warm it up in your pocket, you should be reminded of fenugreek or a mild curry powder when you take a sniff. (I tried this today for the first time!) The smell becomes stronger as the fungus dries out.
The Fenugreek Stalkball is easily overlooked, which is possibly why there aren’t many records of it. The NBN Atlas has 127 records at time of writing and these are mostly from the south of England, with ten from Norfolk. Sterry and Hughes describe its status as “occasional in S. England”. It has also been found in other parts of Europe (including Poland, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Denmark, Slovenia, Norway and Sweden), and in the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Japan. It is pictured and described (in French) on the Champignons du Quebec website.
The fungus was first described growing on a living Beech tree (Fagus), hence the “faginea” part of the scientific name. However, it has now been found on a large range of trees from at least eleven plant families.