Forty-five minutes north of Timaru on the east coast of the South Island, past the quaint town of Geraldine, and a couple hours south of Christchurch is Peel Forest.
Native forests rest on the Canterbury foothills and surviving remnants of larger forests border the Rangitata River. Although early Maori settlement and European settlers destroyed much of the old growth forest with logging and fires, the area still offers the opportunity to take a trip back in time and explore many tracks with ever-changing environments.
It’s November and summer is here. Not the best time for fungi, but I spend a couple of weeks at the Peel Forest DOC Campground and manage to find some interesting species (albeit of the smaller, less colorful, and short-lived, deliquescent variety that aren’t typically found over the winter months).
I cut through the knee-high grass and dodge the yellow-flowered gorse that borders the Rangitata River. The loud sound of the river rushing off in the distance cuts over the stones that cover the riverbed and spread out as far as the eye can see.
One must hop from stone to stone to traverse through a hundred meters of dried-up riverbed to get to the other side where the river flows freely.
I duck under low hanging branches and avoid thorns – hold poses to get a closer look at the understory – “nature yoga.” A pile of decaying black twigs is covered in something bright orange and jelly-like.
Tremella mesenterica to be scientifically specific. Yellow brain, yellow trembler, golden jelly fungus, and witches’ butter are other common names used to describe the growth that is most frequently found on dead, recently fallen branches.
I take Tremella fuciformis in powder form mixed with my morning coffee, evening tea, or add it to soup broth as a health supplement, so I was curious to learn more about this specific species. Tremella typically supports skin hydration & elasticity, but I couldn’t imagine using something orange topically.
Stomach yin, qi, lung & bronchial health, antioxidant defenses, and helping digestion are other benefits.
Tremella has been used by noble men and women of the Orient as a youth-preserving tonic. It is a hydrating and beautifying herb packed full of potent antioxidants that create a radiant complexion.
Further reading mentioned that although Tremella mesenterica is not like Tremella fuciformis, it is non-poisonous and the rubber to gelatinous consistency lends texture to soups. Especially in China, where the fungus is used by vegetarians to prepare “an immunomodulating cooling soup with lotus seed, lily bulbs, and jujube.”
“A person has only to look, to see that dead logs are far more alive than living ones”The Overstory
Tiny green lichen with coarse yellow eye-lashes line golden mouths, and I imagine them saying, “feed me Seymour!” Like a scene out of Little Shop of Horrors.
Teloschistes chrysophthalmus, commonly referred to as golden-eye or gold-eye lichen is a fruticose lichen. Its growth is localized, and colonies form mainly along coastal areas.
As I inspect the bundle of twigs further, I feel as though I am being watched. A momentarily odd feeling when nature takes on anthropomorphic characteristics.
First mouths, now an eye. A Crinipellis, part of the pinwheel family, stares up with a blackish-brown pupil at the center of the tiny cap no larger than a pinky nail. Surrounding the pupil, the iris fades to ochre and tan.
A twig is the base for what appear to be flaming orange umbrella-tipped matchsticks bracing a forceful gale. A fragile lone Cryptomarasmius, or Marasmius-like Omphalotaceae taking the lead.
A macro world of pinwheels that wear lampshades as caps. Belonging to the Marasmiaceae family, I would find many Cryptomarasmius and Marasmius amongst the forest floor in Peel Forest.
Genus Cryptomarasmius. A thread-thin stipe towers above the leaf-litter. An orange umbrella is lifted into the sunlight. Once illuminated, the beacon looks like a miniature sun with symmetrically spaced yellow rays shining down from the center of the cap.
Kuripaka – Golden Tree Ferns don meter-long golden-brown frond skirts and shed leaf litter. A dark green crown sits atop the thick fibrous rusty brown trunk and the canopy shields out the intense summer sun. In the shade, the temperature is bearable, and in some places, cool.
Dead logs mixed in with fallen branches and twigs house a leaf. Teeming with tiny hair-thin stipes, an entire city (population 70+) of pinwheel skyscrapers stand upright.
The sun dries out the fungi in these parts, but a popular deliquescent mushroom, the hare’s foot inkcap offers prime hours of its life to display beauty albeit only for a brief moment.
To be so lucky to spot such a short-lived mushroom. The fruitbodies usually last only a few hours before dissolving into a black ink. Coprinopsis lagopus is said to resemble the paw of a white rabbit, hence earning the common name harefoot mushroom or hare’s foot inkcap.
At the end of the Fern Walk, just down the hill from Lookout Point, down Blandswood Dr. is the entrance to the Dennistoun Bushwalk. Halfway around the hour-long loop, a tall inkcap sprouts from a dead log right before the Saw Pit.
The apex of the cap is burnt orange. I touch the top and like dust being brushed away, white powder is wiped away to reveal even more of the orange coloring.
An unidentified Coprinus species, I would like to assume it is a Firerug inkcap which typically grows in Australia. No IDs on iNaturalist have been made for Firerug inkcaps in New Zealand.
This would be my “biggest” find over the two weeks spent in Peel Forest. It can be a bit jolting to go from keeping your eye’s peeled for the smaller, less colorful fungi, to a sudden palm-sized, in-your-face mushroom.
Across from the Peel Forest Campsite is an uphill twenty-minute hike up to Acland Falls, but before I set out, I stop to inspect a trio of Hohenbuehelia ‘ahuriri.’ I would later find out that the species is undescribed.
At first, I was expecting Pluteus or Deer mushrooms, as is the norm recently. I had grown accustomed to spotting them near Queenstown and Wanaka the weeks before. The gill formations were different from Pluteus, the stipe was met halfway by gills to form an indentation in the center of the cap, and they appeared smaller.
Genus Hohenbuehelia is a pleurotoid genus of agaric fungi characterized by gelatinous-sheathed bowling-pin-shaped cystidia, or conidia, basidiospore germ tubs, and mycelium that adhere to and capture nematodes.
The fruitbodies bear thick-walled cystidia (metuloids) in the hymenium along the gills sides and that differentiate the genus from Pleurotus in the Pluerotacease family. The genus has a widespread distribution and contains about 50 species.
The nearly all uphill hike to Acland Falls was well worth it. I climb over rocks to get closer to the falls and reap the cool reward of mist and damp shade cover in the chasm.
The color red catches my eye and hidden amongst the rock crevices and greenery is a lone Scarlet Pouch Fungus. Many would later be found near riverbanks and underneath fallen branches on the Fern Walk.
READ: Gasteroid Fungus
Heading back, a few minutes before reaching Acland Falls is a turnoff where a trail can be taken toward Te Wanahu Flat, where the entrance to the Big Tree trail and Fern Walk is located.
I set out and find sunlight illuminating miniature lampshades, white and emerald green austro dripping bonnets grow on a dead log. Roridomyces austrororidus – a species new to science as early as 1962 that was first described by American mycologist Rolf Singer. The specific epithet combines the Latin words austro (from australis, “south”) and roridus, meaning “wet with dew.”
I enjoy finding fungi with a history, and would later read that Tony Young, an Australian mycologist suggested that the geographical distribution of the bonnets indicated that its ancestor originated from the ancient continent of Gondwana.
READ: Fungi in the Fiordlands
The end of the trail opens into a field and I’ve reached Te Wanahu Flat. Massive cabbage trees grow next to picnic benches and the lawn is freshly cut welcoming freedom campers. I cut across the open field to find shade and spot a lone sign that says, “Big Tree” with an arrow. I’m intrigued and set out on the 15-minute loop.
Rounding the corner, room is made for people to bear witness to the ancient history of growth. The “Big Tree” sign wasn’t kidding! I lift my head up to stare along the gargantuan trunk-side of a thousand-year-old Totara.
The elephantine roots grip and snake through the ground creating inviting spots to sit and contemplate growth – as if the elder tree is saying, “gather around my children, I shall tell you a tale.”
The forest speaks. It’s up to us to listen.