Mushrooms and Toadstools of the Czech Republic

When my visit to Karlstejn castle in the Czech Republic was cut short by gray skies and rules saying that you can't take photos inside the castle walls, I did what any tourist would have done - I went into the surrounding woods to find mushrooms and toadstools to photograph!

The gloomy skies made fungi one of the few photogenic subjects left in the area, and the rain that had obviously fallen before I visited made conditions perfect for the mushrooms and toadstools to make an appearance above ground.

Most people don't realize how many different colors fungi come in, like this kinky purple number.

This is a fly agaric mushroom (Amanita muscaria) which was growing in the pine forests above the castle.   They're usually brighter red than this but despite the dampness while I was there, this mushroom and the previous one look like they came up when it was a bit drier, so that might be why it's more orange, or perhaps it was just an old mushroom losing its color.

There is a theory that fly agaric mushrooms are the source of the Santa Claus story.   In pre-Christian Lappland shamans used to eat them, the poisons in the mushroom producing first a coma and then strong hallucinogenic effects, which is said to be the origin of flying reindeer.   When Christian missionaries arrived they assimilated these myths into the legend of Saint Nicholas, using the red and white of the mushroom's cap as the colour scheme for Santa Claus.

Whether or not it is the model for Santa Claus, the fly agaric is undisputably the most popular type of mushroom for garden gnomes to sit on or under!

These mushrooms were in a damper part of the forest with deciduous trees.   They're obviously a very attractive shade of pink and red, but as you can see something else has found them attractive enough to eat!   Fungi are eaten by various insects including some species of beetles, and later we'll see tell-tale signs of another mushroom-munching meanie.

This large mushroom might be chocolate coloured, but presumably it's not chocolate flavoured.   There is, however, a mushroom which grows in the United States called the chocolate milky!

Another very large mushroom, but yellow and pink this time!

Another yellow mushroom, of a slightly slimy, icky type.   Surprisingly, some species of slimy mushrooms are considered very good eating, like the varieties "slippery jack" and "slippery jill".

I didn't check, but the previous mushroom might have belonged to the bolete family, like the mushroom shown here.   As you can see from this photo, boletes don't have the gills of "normal" fungi, instead they have tubes which serve as the maturation place of the spores, which are the fungi equivalent of a plant's seeds.   Despite their unfamiliar appearance, the bolete family contains more edible mushrooms than any other, and in the United States the king bolete is widely considered to be the best of all edible mushrooms.

bolete   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

Here's another fungus without gills, this time it's some type of polypore.   Most fungi live on dead matter and serve an extremely important function in recycling this material back into a form which can be reused by other plants or animals, however as you can see some fungi like this one grow on living plants and animals as parasites.

Here's a really tiny mushroom, growing directly out of a dead leaf!

And here are some fungi growing directly out of a fungus; the black dot at the end of each thread is a bundle of spores.

Since most mushrooms only last for a week or so, you can just imagine how quickly parasitic fungi like these must grow.

There are quite a few fungi that parasitize other fungi, as well as others that parasitize insects and even larger animals like us - just ask anyone who has suffered from athelete's foot!

Another group of mushrooms with plenty of representatives in the Czech Republic is the puffballs.   They don't have gills, tubes or pores, instead the spores form inside the enclosed head and when mature are expelled from a hole in the top.   Many schoolboys around the world have learned the joys of accelerating this process by stomping on them to release a dark smoky cloud of spores.   Incidentally, the slime in the bottom left of this photo is the trademark of those deadly enemies of the mushroom I mentioned earlier - slugs and snails!

Here's the largest mushroom I found, the appropriately named giant puffball.   This one is about 20 centimeters across but they can reach an incredible 70 or more centimeters, and even average sized ones are said to contain around 7 trillion spores.   The spores are so tiny that they can be carried from one continent to another by the wind, which is why this species is found all around the world.   Most puffballs including the giant puffball are edible while still white inside, and you can see that some critter has taken some pretty big chunks out of this one.   I photographed a huge snail in this area, there were even wildlife identification signs in the area describing the snails, unfortunately I didn't make any notes about them.

earthstar   (click here to open a new window with this photo in computer wallpaper format)

Some puffballs come in extraordinary shapes, like this earthstar which begins as a solid ball whose thick outer layer splits to reveal the thin-walled inner chamber, which has the characteristic hole at the top.

The outer layer might not look tasty to us, but as you can see the nearest "petal" has been nibbled by something.

This puffball doesn't have an interesting shape like the earthstar, but it is paired up with a strange-looking fungus, a so-called bird's nest fungus.

Here's a closeup of the bird's nest fungus.

The white "eggs" within the cup are actually packets of spores.  Water splashes into the cup and throws the packets away from the parent, however it's hard to imagine them going very far, and it seems like normal wind-borne spore dispersal would be a better approach.

Here's one photo I didn't take near Karlstejn, a coral fungus which I photographed at Lednice in South Moravia.   It was another gloomy, rainy day when I was there, making photography of the chateau and the huge surrounding park pretty hopeless.   Some of these coral fungi species are edible, but this one example was really small - though you can see that there's an even tinier but fully grown mushroom in the photo with a classic mushroom shape!

Back to Karlstejn, but staying with the theme of weird shapes, here's one that looks like it was extruded from the stump as a molten mass.   It's similar in appearance to the chicken of the woods fungus that I photographed some years previously in Illinois.   That fungus is said to taste much like its namesake, and indeed this Czech example has also had large chunks taken out of it.   I don't know what made the bite-shaped marks on the left, but the surface indentations look like the work of slugs or snails, and there's certainly plenty of slime around.

Most mushrooms have convex caps but here are some which are concave.

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Here's a seriously concave mushroom.

The flaky patches on the top are remnants of what is called the "universal veil" which sheaths and protects the fungus when it erupts from below the ground.

The colour is completely different, but the cap looks similar to the fly agaric earlier on this page, and I suspect it belongs to the same Amanita family.   This family is said to cause about 90 percent of all fatal mushroom poisonings, and contains many of the deadliest fungi on earth, such as the death cap and the destroying angel.

After a few seriously concave mushrooms, how about one that's convex?

This mushroom might strike you as somewhat phallic but it's nothing compared to the phallic mushrooms I've photographed in the United States.

These little sweeties were growing in a park in the incredibly beautiful town of Telc.   Unlike all of the other photos on this page, it was a bright, sunny day so I actually had to shade the sunlight to even out the lighting.

A wolf spider surveys its domain from the top of a handy mushroom. 

Like some other spider families, wolf spiders don't build webs and wait for prey to come to them, instead they go out and actively hunt.   Unlike passive hunters, wolf spiders also have relatively good eyesight so they can track their prey by sight.   I doubt, though, that this wolf spider did actually climb the mushroom to get a better view, it probably just climbed up there to see if there was anything to eat.

When I travel I usually try to combine several activities on the trip.   The main reason for my Czech trip was to go to an airshow called the Czech International Air Fair, but I also made a point of visiting tourist attractions, photographing spiders, insects and other wildlife, and of course searching out the local fungi!

A few shots now showing safety in numbers, starting off with these cute as a button mushrooms.

Not such a nice colour, but the parasol shape looks good!   This little army of mushrooms is called "trooping crumble cap", as well as "fairies' bonnets".

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Here's one of the last photos I took at Karlstejn.

I'd been wandering around in the forest for most of the day and ended up totally lost.   The light was starting to fade and it was beginning to rain more heavily.   Fortunately I was well armed with a waterproof poncho and an umbrella, and I met a nice Czech couple on a farm track out tending their cows, who kindly drove me back to the village and refused my offer of petrol money.

The last photo might seem an odd way to end a section called "safety in numbers", but if you look at the base of the mushroom you'll see why I put it here!   Here's a closer view, with what looks like tiny regular mushrooms on the left and weird orange globules on the right.   The globules are spore containers, but they don't belong to a fungus, instead they belong to a slime mould.   Although the name suggests that they're fungi, slime moulds are now treated as a separate category of life, with several unusual characteristics.   Mushrooms are really just the fruit of fungi, which exist as strands called mycellium, which might well be what the white strands on the right-hand side of this photo are.   Mycellium grows but is fixed in location, like the roots of trees, however slime moulds actually move through wood, actively hunting down bacteria and other food sources.   The same species can take the form of a colony of separate cells like amoeba, or as a single giant amoeba within one cell wall, which can be up to two square meters in area.   As musician David St Hubbins of the mythical rock group Spinal Tap said, "They are both plant and animal, it's like they can't make up their mind, but if they ever did then they could take over just like that!".