Scarlet bracket fungus

Western Australia's southwest is one of the most botanically diverse regions in the world, renowned for its wildflowers and soaring karri trees.

An even more diverse group exists within the fungi—the jarrah, karri and tingle forests and associated woodlands are home to an amazing range of fungi, in a variety of forms and colours. 

Why fungi are important

Fungi play important roles in ecosystem functioning.

  • They are the forest recyclers, breaking down forest litter and debris to provide nutrients for plants.
  • They also aid the uptake of these nutrients into the plants.
  • Underground truffle-like fungi provide a food source for several native mammals including the woylie (Bettongia penicillata) and potoroo (Potorus gilbertii).

Fungi in Australia

Fungi are neither plants nor animals, and belong to their own separate kingdom. They are amongst the largest living organisms on the planet, and can spread over vast areas.

Despite their importance, knowledge of Australian fungi is limited.

There are at least ten times as many fungi as plants in Australia, the vast majority being microfungi that cannot be seen with the naked eye. There are probably about 10,000 species of  macrofungi, but few have been formally described and named.

There are very few records of Aboriginal people utilising fungi and they were regarded suspiciously by the early European settlers.

As a result, not many Australian fungi have common names, and for those that do, the names have often been taken from European or North American cultures and their original reference is to a different species.

In autumn, a vast number of species can be found along roadsides, and walking tracks in forests, woodlands and coastal communities of the south-west of Western Australia. 

Types of fungi

There are two main types of fungi, the Basidiomycetes and the Ascomycetes. They differ in the way they produce their spores, which can only be seen microscopically.

For the majority of their existence, fungi persist in the form of microscopic filaments called hyphae.

  • The microscopic hyphae make up the main part of a fungus.
  • Hyphae colonise the soil or other substrates such as litter and wood.
  • At certain times of the year they develop the distinctive fruit bodies we refer to as mushrooms, toadstools or brackets.
  • The fruit bodies are the reproductive stage, and can be equated to being the fruit of a plant, for example, just like an apple on a tree.
  • Most fungi fruit in the autumn and winter, but a few fruit in the spring.
Ileodictyon gracile or basket fungus
- Photo © R Robinson

The basic terminology used to describe typical mushrooms is quite simple, and most mushrooms can be described in terms of the shape, colour and texture of their cap, the gills or pores under the cap, and their stem.

Not all fruit bodies are mushroom or toadstool-shaped. Many are modified but represent simplified forms of this shape.

While their diversity may at first be overwhelming, with practice, fungi can be separated into a number of groups.

Despite being common, not all the fungi illustrated have names, but they can be readily identified, using the appearance of their fruit body, as belonging to a common group and to a genus within that group.

For many fungi, the colour of spores can also be used to separate similar taxa. Spore prints are obtained by removing the stem and placing the cap of the mushroom on a piece of paper (gills or pores down) and cover with a bowl or jar for several hours. The released spores will leave a coloured deposit of spore powder on the paper.

Fungal Groups

Blue staining bolete
- Photo © R Robinson

These are not strict taxonomic groups but simple and convenient groups in which to put fungi for those with a basic non-scientific interest.

Basidiomycetes include the mushrooms, toadstools, coral fungi, puffballs, bracket fungi and others. The common groups of Basidiomycetes include:

  • agarics: mushrooms with gills
  • boletes: mushrooms with pores
  • coral fungi: fruit bodies are simple club-like or multi-branched structures
  • puff balls: sac-like fungi
  • spine fungi: mushrooms or fruit bodies with spines
  • truffle-like fungi: fruit underground
  • leather and crust fungi: thin leathery sheets on sticks and wood
  • polypores: hard woody bracket-like fungi on trees and wood
  • jelly fungi: soft gelatinous fungi on wood
Aleuria rhenana
stalked orange peel (cup) fungus

- Photo © R Robinson

Ascomycetes is a diverse group with fruit bodies that can be cup-shaped, disc-shaped, club-like, spherical or crust-like in appearance, and their texture can be fleshy to firm or hard and carbon-like. Some common groups of Ascomycetes are:

  • cup fungi: cup or disk shaped
  • earth tongues: firm and fleshy with a tongue-like appearance
  • morels: fleshy with distinct elongated honeycomb-like cap
  • flask fungi: usually hard and charcoal-like

Collecting or Picking Fungus

Fungi are protected by the same laws that protect native plants and animals. It is illegal to collect them from national parks and a permit is needed to collect them from State forest.

Further information

Further information about fungi in Western Australia can be found in the Fungi of the South-West Forests Bush Book, Perth Fungi Field Book and Fungus factsheets.