“I find them absolutely fascinating,” says Dr Jassy Drakulic, pointing to a mushroom growing from a log.
“There is a series of stripes from brown to black to a pale edge.”
Mushrooms are not known for their ornamental value, but they are an element of beauty for the scientist.
The plant pathologist is on a mission to spread the word that fungi need protection as much as plants and animals.
“They’re plentiful in gardens, but you won’t realize how common and how beautiful they are until you start looking for them,” she says.
This mushroom got its name from its resemblance to a turkey tail. It belongs to the class of saprophytic fungi that feed on dead wood or other decaying matter and are vital for life on earth.
“Saprophytic fungi are still understudied and not loved enough,” says Dr Drakulic.
Turkey tail mushrooms are common across the UK on dead logs, trunks and fallen branches. But these specimens were grown from scratch, a first for the Royal Horticultural Society, rather than self-emerging.
Experts grew the fungus in the lab, then transplanted the spores onto birch logs at the wildlife garden at Wisley Gardens, Surrey. It’s part of an effort to convince the public that fungi play an important role in ecosystems.
“There is a lot of mycophobia to fungi in the UK,” says Dr Drakulic. “Many people fear poisonous mushrooms, but none of them will harm you if you don’t go eat what you find.”
Studying the likes of the turkey tail mushroom is a starting point for the scientist who has devoted years to honey mushroom research. Honey fungus is a killer of shrubs, bushes and trees, and there is no cure.
But only a tiny fraction of the thousands of fungal species in the world can cause disease in plants and animals. The vast majority are harmless and generally beneficial.
Saprophytic fungi provide food and shelter for wildlife, helping plants absorb water and nutrients and break down dead organic matter. Other types of fungi grow on the roots of trees and plants, forming an extensive underground network that helps the trees to feed.
There are thought to be around 25,000 fungal species in the UK – five or six times more than plants.
“We don’t have a name for most of the fungi that exist, so you can’t preserve something you don’t know,” says Dr Drakulic.
“With mushrooms, we’re really catching up trying to examine what we have.”
An estimated two million fungal species – more than 90% of all fungi – have yet to be described by science. Scientists are trying to identify biodiversity hotspots and learn more about this largely unexplored world.
Follow Helen on Twitter @hbriggs.