Derek – Friday 13th November 2020

There’s clumps of honey fungus (Armillaria mellea) at the rear of the garden, around various wooden posts. The mushrooms are a warm honey-brown colour, bunches of them tightly packed. It’s the time for mushrooms, damp autumn with still a little warmth in the air.

But not everyone loves armillaria.

When I worked in the parks in Haringey, back in the 70s, the council was not composting leaves once raked up, but burning them instead. The reason, I was told, was that in a previous season honey fungus had come from the leaf mould and had killed off some shrubs and trees. Mind you, I was just a lowly gardener, not consulted by the big cheeses in their warm offices. I got this third or fourth hand, and who knows how contorted the message had got via Chinese whispers.

Even so, it’s not just Haringey circa 1970.

The RHS site says: ‘Honey fungus spreads underground, attacking and killing the roots of perennial plants and then decaying the dead wood. It is the most destructive fungal disease in UK gardens.’

That’s pretty heavy. But I have noticed that the RHS tends to go for the rip-out option. Let’s try another authority.

Wikipedia says: ‘It causes Armillaria root rot in many plant species and produces mushrooms around the base of trees it has infected. The symptoms of infection appear in the crowns of infected trees as discoloured foliage, reduced growth, dieback of the branches and death.’

Wiki can be dubious, so let’s try just one more. I mean, I kinda like the stuff, so I’m looking for someone who doesn’t say nuke it.

Gardener’s World magazine says: ‘Honey fungus can wreak havoc in gardens. Named after its honey-coloured mushrooms, which sometimes appear in late summer and autumn, it comprises several species in the Armillaria genus, which spread underground and attack and kill the roots of woody and perennial plants.’

All of which seems pretty damning. Though Gardener’s World does add in mitigation: ‘There are different species of honey fungus, which vary in the extent to which they cause plants harm. The more aggressive species can kill otherwise healthy plants, but some will simply restrict growth or kill only already weakened plants. Therefore it may not be necessary to try to eradicate the fungus, but focus on keeping your plants healthy and living with it.’

My feeling is that we don’t have the really virulent variety as we have had it for a number of years, and I have not noted any serious damage. In fact, none at all. Though if we decide to get rid of it, it has to be either burnt or go in the bin. Putting it on the compost heap will spread the spores.

And on the subject of killer plants, I have noted hemlock coming back. We had a stand of it about three years ago, when we confused it with cow parsley, but it grows taller, over two metres (a size we are familiar with these days) and has distinctive purple patches on the stems. We got rid of it, or so we thought, but back it comes. Just small at the moment, but we’ll rip it out when it gets sizeable. Socrates was forced to drink a potion of it, in 399 BC, after being found guilty of corrupting Athenian youth with his questioning of the deities and state politics.

I look for animal life in our pond, but there’s nothing moving. There’s plenty of snails but they are immobile. Whatever else is there is either dying or dormant. The pond though is healthy, the water clear with plenty of oxygenators (elodea and hornwort) for animal life to come again in the spring.

Under the cherry tree at the front of the garden is a paisley mosaic of leaves, a touch of red, a little green, but mostly yellow. Sometimes we are obsessed with flowers as if they are the only beauty in the garden. Let’s look more closely at spiders’ webs, autumn leaves, and weathering wood, to name but three, and not rush to tidy it away.

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