To my amazement, not everyone with gardens is delighted to find mushrooms and toadstools growing there. Of course many fungi are in gardens anyway, but they are usually unseen until circumstances are right for some species to seemingly spontaneously erupt into fruiting.

Mushrooms and toadstools have probably always evoked ambivalent feelings amongst us. They have a kind of mystery as they appear suddenly and just as suddenly disappear, and although many mushrooms are deliciously edible, some are poisonous and even deadly, so mushrooms may induce delight or dread.

The term mushroom is used quite loosely, but most often refers to fungi that form domed caps on stalks, and the term toadstool generally refers to those that are poisonous. All photos in this post are of these forms of fungi that crop up in our garden from time to time.

Athough there are those who dislike it when mushrooms and other fungi appear in their gardens – with some gardeners even trying to eradicate them – interestingly many plants cannot exist without the existence of fungi.

The diverse group of mycorrhizal fungi live in a mutually beneficial association with plants. The fungi live around the roots of plants in a symbiotic relationship of nutrient transfer – the fungi help bring water and nutrients to the plants roots, and in turn the plant roots provide the fungi with carbohydrates.

The fruiting bodies of fungi that we see, such as in the form of domed mushrooms or toadstools, emanate periodically from the main body of the organism that is hidden from view as it exists in a substrate such as soil or wood. The main part of the fungus is a network of hair-like filaments. The fine filaments are referred to as hyphae, and when they grow together they form the network referred to as the mycelium.

The mycelium of a mycorrhizal fungus surrounds the roots of its host plants, with some hyphae penetrating the roots in the mutually beneficial association. It is estimated that 90 of plant species – that include trees such as oaks and pines – depend on such associations. Specific fungi have co-evolved in association with specific host plants. These relationships can be very specific, so for example foragers of wild edible mushrooms will know to look for specific species of mushrooms in proximity to specific species of trees.

Another grouping of fungi, referred to as saprophytic fungi, feed on dead plant matter, such as wood, or on animal remains. These fungi are important decomposers of organic matter and the decomposition work they do recycles dead plant and animal material into essential components of productive soils, making humus and contributing nutrients and minerals to maintain healthy and fertile soil.

Many of the fruiting bodies of fungi that I see in our garden are associated with decaying wood or roots. The fragile and easily broken caps of the large mushrooms in the photo above emanate from a decaying tree stump. The underneath gills of the mushroom can be seen. The gills are the spore-producing surfaces of these mushrooms.

This small mushroom is growing out of decaying bits of wood in the leaf litter left undisturbed under a grove of trees in our garden. A tiny snail is visible on the stem (or stipe) of the mushroom.

I think the mushrooms above are one of the inkcaps. This cluster of mushrooms is also growing out a decaying tree stump.

As suddenly as they appear the mushrooms collapse into an inky ‘mess’ – hence the name ink cap. The gills dissolve into a sticky black liquid or slime and the spores can be spread by water of visiting insects.

Every few months or so, an attractive solitary mushroom appears in the same spot in our lawn. Unfortunately this one got damaged but the damaged area shows off the spore-bearing gills on the underside of the mushroom. I am not attempting to identify the mushrooms featured here as it takes quite some training and attention to detail to be able to do this with any degree of confidence.

These pale orange mushrooms emerged in the gaps between old moss-covered bricks paving a shady area in our garden. I wondered if red and orange mushrooms are less likely to be edible and if, as in some insects, the bright colours advertise danger. But looking at my field guide to mushrooms I see that some red and orange mushrooms are edible, and that the innocuous-looking pale mushroom known as the ‘death cap’, which is deadly poisonous if eaten, resembles many edible mushrooms.

Growing in association with the orange mushroom is this redder mushroom. Perhaps it is a less mature version of the same mushroom. Some mushrooms are edible when young but become poisonous when mature. I have no idea whether these mushrooms are edible or not. Some mushrooms are inedible not because they are poisonous but because the taste horrible.

These little mushrooms grow in clusters on knobbly stems. I think they grow in association with underground roots of a dead tree.

Another grouping of fungi are parasitic fungi. Whether we regard them as good or bad depends on what they parasitize. Obviously, if they affect our garden or crop plants, think leaf blight or mildew for example, they are bad, but if they parasitize insects that we regard as pests, then we regard them as good.

Smaller forms of fungi can also be beneficial or harmful from a human point of view – of course we don’t like mouldy bread, but we like blue (mouldy) cheeses! And where would be without the fungi in the form of yeasts that ferment to make bread, and the fungi that are used to ferment wine or beer.

Although I don’t know what they are, I enjoy seeing these small mushrooms that pop up in our lawn when conditions are right for them. An American website Urban Mushrooms explains how urban mushroom foragers rather dread the enemies in their midst in the form of those who kick or stomp on mushrooms, those who poison mushrooms or mow them down, and those who pave patches of undeveloped ground that were formerly productive for edible mushrooms.

Here is another attractive cluster of mushrooms in our garden that indicate an active presence of fungal recyclers hard at work processing dead wood into healthy soil.

Some of the mushrooms that appear are delicate. Among the most delicate and tiny are the fair bonnets (or fairy incaps). I published a post featuring these lovely little mushrooms in January 2017.  I titled the post Fairy-tale fungi: The magic of mushrooms and it continues to be the most visited post on naturebackin, attracting thousands of views.

Other mushrooms that appear are more robust and I do wonder sometimes if any of them are edible, but I am far too ignorant and cautious to ever experiment.

Next week’s post will feature some other forms of fungi that appear in our garden.


Goldman, Gary B & Marieka Gryzenhout. 2019. Field Guide to Mushrooms & other Fungi of South Africa. Struik Nature: Cape Town.

Posted by Carol