Rural Dorset vs. Urban Manchester: Autumnal Plants and Fungi

Series in collaboration with guest writer Emma Rogan

Autumn is a time of plenty, painted with fantastic colours, such as leaves changing, berries and nuts adorning unveiling branches, and the emergence of marvellous mushrooms. Wherever you go during this time, autumn may be moving at a different pace, but the vein of change runs throughout. In Dorset, autumn begins with the first blackberries in August, the start of the migration of birds to warmer climes, and the beginning of a bite in the early morning. In Manchester these signs can also be found, but the change in season is more easily spotted by the increasing carpet of amber leaves on the pavement. For nature, this time of bounty and activity foreshadows the days of dormancy to come.

Last time in Rural vs. Urban, Dorset-born naturalist Laura was joined by Manchester-born wildlife enthusiast and friend Emma, to explore the magical minibeasts that could be found in their local patches. From grasshoppers to froghoppers, both Laura and Emma were amazed by the variety of species they found in such a short space of time! No experts on minibeasts, just enthusiastic adults, their eyes were opened to this miniature world by slowing down and focussing on the smaller things. In this way, we can gain a lot, from escapism to inspiration.

In this next instalment of Rural vs. Urban, we move into autumn with Laura and Emma exploring their home areas to see in the change of the seasons. As colours change and leaves fall, what will location and season mean for the plant and fungi life observed? What treasures will be discovered as we go back to the golden days of autumn?

Laura’s Plants and Fungi in the Countryside

This year autumn could be felt in cold mornings and stormy weather, but did not start showing its true face until October. I first took in the change of the season with a walk to my local woods on the 6th October, seeing the ruby red gleam of Hawthorn berries and a spectacular sunset of chilly blues and pinks. I was finally inspired explore all that autumn had to offer.

So, on the next day, I ventured out into my family’s land to take in all that nature had to offer, as autumn made its slow decline towards putting the landscape to sleep. Leaves were yet to start falling on this day, other than being ripped from their branches in strong winds, but were beginning to show a change in colour. Purples, reds, yellows, oranges, browns, and also the spectacular pink of Spindle leaves. By far the most common trees to be found in my local area though, are Pedunculate Oak, Field Maple, Hazel, Blackthorn, Elder, and Hawthorn; Oaks being a personal favourite.

The warm weather this autumn has meant that it has felt even slower in its start. So it was not surprising on my walk to find a variety of flowers still out, ranging from Herb Robert and Wild Marjoram to Meadow Cranesbill and Rough Hawkbit. With their presence at least, they will have provided an extended food source for wildlife that were yet to hide for the winter, for example Small Tortoiseshell Butterflies that were still on the wing. They also added colour to the magnificent display of nature’s bounty this autumn, which included the rich reds of Rose hips and the deep blues of sloes.

The warm and damp weather also provided the perfect conditions for fruiting fungi, an area where my knowledge is yet to fledge. Two species I did learn on my exploration though, were the pale, peeling Shaggy Inkcap and the unusual hulking forms of Bracket fungus, possibly Southern. Looking for fungi showed me that every day is a learning day and that our knowledge is ever expanding!

To round off my autumn adventure, I picked some apples from our apple trees to make a family favourite, an apple cake. The cake was simple to make, but went down a treat!

Emma’s Urban Plants and Fungi Adventure

For me, no time of the year evokes a feeling of new beginnings more than September. Perhaps it’s a throwback to when September meant the start of a new school year, but the changing of the season always lifts my spirits. Autumn is the season of hot chocolate, curling up with a book, re-watching Gilmore Girls for the fourth (okay, sixth…) time, and wrapping up warm to head out for a walk in the crisp autumn sun! Which, on September 26th, is exactly what me and my partner did.

Our first stop, as usual, was the beloved Parsonage Gardens in Didsbury. This beautiful walled garden provides a home for an amazing variety of trees, looked after by a dedicated team of volunteers. My favourite is the old mulberry tree at the entrance to the gardens, but we also found a corkscrew hazel, a yew tree with bright red berries, some bamboo, a sargent’s rowan tree, a Chinese dogwood, and some ferns! I love ferns because of how ancient they are. With a fossil record dating back to the middle Devonian (383-393 million years ago) they are one of the oldest groups of plants on Earth. A piece of ancient history on our doorstep!

As we walked down the hill to Fletcher Moss Gardens, we passed the Church of St James on Stenner Lane. St James is the second oldest church in Manchester, dating back to 1275. I paused for a moment to admire the ivy spilling over the walls surrounding the church garden, before continuing on. The species we encountered as we wandered through Fletcher Moss ranged from the small (forget-me-nots) to the large (silver birch). We also found another rowan tree, the bane of witches! Rowan has an illustrious history in British folklore as red was considered the best colour for fighting evil, so it was planted by houses so that it’s red berries could protect the occupants from witches.

Our walk took us further into Stenner Woods, where we were on the lookout for fungi. This is not my area of expertise, but I’ve done my best to identify what we found! Growing on the side of a fallen log was a small mushroom which I think is a type of inkcap, and on top of another log was a large, flat mushroom with a white underside which I think is a giant polypore. Like Laura I spotted some bracket fungus, although the fungus looked to be past it’s best so I was not sure of the species! While searching through the woodland for fungi, I also came across an abandoned spider’s web adorned with raindrops which looked like crystals.

We ended our plant and fungi hunt by walking through the iconic poplar grove which leads from the river back to Stenner Lane. I had a lovely time on my autumn adventure, but I think I need to brush up on my fungus identification skills!

Autumnal Plants and Fungi

Autumn is usually defined as the season between summer and winter when leaves change colour and fall, the weather becomes cooler, and a time of full maturity is reached, such as crops becoming ripe. Autumn is so much more than this though, with it often being a favourite time of year for many, encapsulated in a feeling of cosiness, plentifulness and change. For Laura at this time of year, the sunsets are spectacular, the nights full of starry skies, and surroundings full of natural food on offer. For Emma, frost sparkles on bright leaves, the morning air becomes crisp, and the smell of hot chocolate is a welcome aroma.

This season is also a time for plants and fungi to reach the ends of their annual cycle and go out with a bang. As Laura and Emma found, autumn is a vibrant season before winter’s slumber descends on the landscape. It was interesting to see some variation between the two locations though, such as in Manchester more exotic species thrive and autumn marches forward earlier than in Dorset. This would be due to the naturally milder climate found in an urban setting, but temperatures tending to be colder in the North-West than the balmier South-West.

Still there were treasures to be found in both locations, with plants and fungi taking centre stage. Colourful, bountiful and spectacular, such species capture the imagination and provide a lifeline in nature. Engulfed in the cold and storminess of winter, we can now look back on the golden glow of autumn days with a smile, before we begin to look forward to the return of new life once again.

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