Fungal Hitch-hikers to Oz — some are poisonous

A number of mushrooms that fruit at the start of the autumn are fungi that have been introduced to Australia with their non-native tree hosts. These are the ectomycorrhizal fungi that have hitch-hiked to Oz on the roots of pines, firs, birch, oaks and willows. Ectomycorrhizal fungi form an obligate symbiosis with the roots of their host trees, providing water and access to nutrients that the plant roots can’t get too, and in return receiving food in the form of sugars that the fungus can’t make for itself.

In the early days, plants were transported to Australia as seedlings or small trees, sometimes as bare root stock, or at times in a pot of soil. The native fungi in Australia cannot form these symbioses with the non-native trees, so it was critical that these ectomycorrhizal hitch-hikers came along for the ride, enabling the establishment of some lovely trees.

Ectomycorrhizal roots (LEFT) and a cross-section of a root-tip showing the ‘sock’ of fungal hyphae surrounding the root and penetrating in between root cells (blue staining; RIGHT)

While the identity of species fruiting with oaks, pines and birch are reasonably well known, there are still surprises, and very little known about the ectomycorrhizal hitch-hikers that grow with willows. Unfortunately while there are some edible mushrooms in the mix, there are also some poisonous species, including the deadly toxic Amanita phalloides or deathcap. If you see any of these poisonous mushrooms, then please lodge photos in our iNaturalist fungisight project. This will help provide a better idea of how widely these mushrooms are distributed.

Amanita phalloides grows only with oaks, chestnut & hazelnut in Oz. Caps are generally greenish yellow, shiny, 3-10 cm wide. Gills white. Stem has a ring or skirt, and a bulbous sac (volva) that the stem sits inside at the base.

POISONOUS — One of the most poisonous of all known mushrooms, a piece the size of a 20c piece or a small button is enough to cause serious organ damage or fatality. The principal toxin is α-amanitin, which damages the liver and kidneys, causing liver and kidney failure, in people and pets.

Amanita phalloides. Photo: T. Lebel.

Amanita phalloides. Photo: T. Lebel.

Amanita muscaria grows with birch, pines, & oaks. Caps are red to orange with white flecks on top, 8-20 cm wide. Gills white. Stem has a ring or skirt and a bulbous base.

POISONOUS — Contains several active compounds, muscimol a psychoactive and ibotenic acid a neurotoxin. Deaths from this fungus have occurred but are rare.

Amanita muscaria (composite image). Photo: R. Halling.

Paxillus involutus grows with birch, oaks, hazel, & pines. Caps are various shades of brown, funnel-shaped up to 12 cm wide with a distinctive inrolled rim. Gills slightly lighter in colour than the cap, running down the stem (decurrent) (see also images on the Kaimai Bush page).

POISONOUS — An antigen in the mushroom triggers the immune system to attack red blood cells. People can consume the mushroom for years without any other ill effects, before suddenly becoming seriously to fatally ill.

Paxillus involutus. Photo: T. Lebel.

Lactarius pubescens grows with birch. Caps are a blend of pink and brownish, sometimes with concentric zones of alternating lighter and darker shades, often with a central depression, up to 10 cm wide. The edge of the cap is rolled inward, and shaggy when young. Gills are a similar colour to the cap. When cut or injured, the fruit bodies ooze a bitter white milk (see also information on the First Nature page).

POISONOUS — This species is highly irritating causing mild to severe gastro. The toxins, also responsible for the strongly bitter or acrid taste, are typically destroyed by cooking or long preparation.

Lactarius pubescens (LEFT), close-up of gills and edge of cap (RIGHT). Photos: T. Lebel.

Lactarius turpis / necator typically grows with birch, but can grow on pine & spruce. Caps are olive brown or yellow-green and often sticky or slimy, with an inrolled margin and velvety zones when young. Cap becomes funnel-shaped and darkens to blackish in age, up to 8–20 cm wide. Gills dirty white, stained olive-brown by old milk, running slightly down the stem (see also information on the First Nature page).

NOT RECOMMENDED  Very bitter/acrid tasting and contains a mutagen nectorin.

Lactarius turpis. Photo: T. Lebel.

If you suspect you or someone you know has eaten a wild mushroom, do not wait for symptoms to appear. Contact the Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26 for advice and always call triple zero (000) in an emergency.

Written by State Herbarium mycologist Dr Teresa Lebel.

New research paper on fungi

Geothermal area in New Zealand, habitat shot. Photo: T. Lebel.

State Herbarium mycologist Teresa Lebel is involved in a research project on ectomycorrhizal fungi, which resulted in this recent publication:

Pisolithus albus fruiting bodies in a geothermal vent. Photo: T. Lebel.

Plett, K.L., Kohler, A., Lebel, T., Singan, V.R., Bauer, D., He, G., Ng, V., Grigoriev, I.V., Martin, F., Plett, J.M. & Anderson, I.C. (2021). Intra-species genetic variability drives carbon metabolism and symbiotic host interactions in the ectomycorrhizal fungus Pisolithus microcarpus. Environmental Microbiology 23: 2004-2020 (open access).

Pisolithus species are important ectomycorrhizal (ECM) fungi, forming symbiotic associations with the roots of Myrtaceae, Nothofagaceae, Pinaceae, Fagaceae in particular. In Australia these fungi occur in diverse habitats, but in New Zealand the mycorrhizal hosts only occur around geothermal areas. In this paper the extent of intra-species variation between four isolates of the ECM fungus Pisolithus microcarpus, in terms of gene regulation, carbon metabolism and growth, and interactions with a host, Eucalyptus grandis, was explored. The authors’ results highlight the importance of sampling a wider range of individuals within a species to understand the broader ecological roles of ECM fungi and their host interactions.

The typical fruitbody texture and colour of a Pisolithus species, with large granular texture of chambers in the spore bearing tissue. Collection TL2765, made on Kangaroo Island. Photo: D. Catheside.

Written by State Herbarium mycologist Teresa Lebel.

New journal articles: April 2021

Stenanthemum leucophractum, growing in Wanilla Settlement Reserve (Eyre Peninsula). Photo: J. Kellermann.

The State Herbarium of South Australia published three articles in Vol. 35 of its journal Swainsona online, today, 7 April 2021. In these articles, State Herbarium botanist Dr Jürgen Kellermann and colleagues, continue the publication of results of the research project on Australian Rhamnaceae, which is funded by the Australian Biological Resources Study, Canberra (ABRS).

(1) J. Kellermann, Further lectotypifications and nomenclatural notes on Rhamnaceae from northern Australia. (8mb PDF).

Ventilago ecorollata from rainforests in eastern Queensland. Line drawing by Anita Barley.

In this paper, the nomenclature and typification of seven species of Rhamnaceae from genera occuring in northern Australia, is discussed and lectotypes are chosen for some of them. Several species are illustrated with excellent line-drawings by Anita Barley (see below).

(2) J. Kellermann & K.R. Thiele, The other ‘propeller plant’ – Notes on Stenanthemum Reissek (Rhamnaceae: Pomaderreae) and a key to the genus in Australia. (3.2mb PDF).

The genus Stenanthemum was reinstated by Western Australian botanist Barbara Rye, who also published several new species in 1995, 2001 and 2007. While she provided detailed descriptions of all new species and subspecies, no recent descriptions are available for most of the already existing taxa. These ten plants are treated in this paper by Jürgen Kellermann and Kevin Thiele, who also select lectotypes for most of them and present a key to all species of the genus in Australia.

(3) J. Kellermann, The importance of the ‘h’ – Parahomonymy in Trymalium (Rhamnaceae: Pomaderreae. (2.2mb PDF).

Spyridium daphnoides, formerly known as S. spathulatum, from Deep Creek Conservation Park (Fleurieu Peninsula). Photo: J. Kellermann.

The history of the species names Trymalium spatulatum (Labill.) G.Don from Western Australia and T. spathulatum F.Muell., the basionym of Spyridium spathulatum (F.Muell.) Benth., from South Australia is discussed. The author concludes that the names are so similar that they are likely to be confused and that they should be treated as homonyms under the International Code of Nomenclature (ICN). This means that the current name for the South Australian species is illegitimate and needs to be replaced by the new combination S. daphnoides (Reissek) Kellermann, which is published in this paper.

To access content of all volumes of Swainsona and the Journal of the Adelaide Botanic Gardens since Vol. 1 (1976), please visit the journal’s web-site at

Continue reading

Post-fire field work on Kangaroo Island

The native plants from Kangaroo Island’s Flinders Chase continue to recover from the intense and devastating bushfires of 2019/2020. In the last week of February 2021, a team from the State Herbarium of South Australia – Helen Vonow, Tracey Spokes and Andrew Thornhill – went to Kangaroo Island to conduct a week-long botanical survey of the national park areas where bushfires had occurred. The purpose of the trip was to assess and collect plants that had grown back one year on. The team collected 350 plant specimens over the western, northern and central parts of Kangaroo Island at 13 different sites. They also visited another 12 sites and made observations of which species of plants were growing back. More than 60 species could be identified in the field; these species appear to be recovering as expected, given that the Australian flora is tough and has evolved and adapted to fire over a long time. Other species recovery will need to be observed over the coming months and years. This field work, along with upcoming trips in May, contribute to tracking the recovery of the KI wild vegetation and assist in supporting the recovery of rare and threatened species, with a number of other projects underway seeking to protect the unique and diverse flora of the island.

Tracey & Helen examining plant regrowth in the field. Photo: A. Thornhill.

Continue reading

The South Australian bryophyte DigiVol project

The bryophyte collection in the State Herbarium. Photo: A. Thornhill.

In the middle of 2019, I began developing a project to make a database of the South Australian bryophyte collection. There are over 30.000 bryophyte specimens in the State Herbarium of South Australia (AD), most of them stored in envelopes with the information typed or hand written on to the front of the envelope (like most bryophyte collections in herbaria). All of the envelopes had accession numbers but very few of them had barcodes or were databased.

With the help of Nunzio Knerr from CSIRO we developed some scripts that would read printed barcodes from a digital image and put the barcode number in the file name. Another script read any typed information and turned it into a text file. At the same time I was told about DigiVol, an Australian initiative that has citizen scientists transcribe scientific information, such as institute collections or camera-trap images. With the help of Eleanor Crichton and Ainsley Calladine from the State Herbarium we developed a bryophyte transcription template to capture the information from each envelope.

The second stage was the biggest part of the project. At the end of 2019 and start of 2020 we began the task of recording accession numbers of each envelope, printing out a barcode, sticking the barcode onto the envelope, and taking a photo of each envelope.

A typical envelope containing a moss collection. Photo: A. Thornhill.

With the help of summer student scholars Joel Bowes and Sam Billings, as well as weekly volunteers Catherine Courtney and Bonnie Newman we started off with a bang and were processing around 500 envelopes a day. A number of test DigiVol “expeditions” were created, and we began to transcribe the envelopes with the idea that we would iron out errors before making the expeditions live.

At the end of March 2021, Covid-19 hit Australia and everything came to a screeching halt. No volunteers could come to the herbarium nor staff. What had started off so promising had now stopped. We had around 2.000 envelopes already imaged and set up as expeditions, but they were yet to be made live. At the end of April 2020, it was decided we should make the expeditions live and see what happen

Photographing the bryophyte envelopes. Photo: A. Thornhill.

The first expedition with 477 envelope images was made live in May. It was completed in five days. The second expedition was made live and finished just as quickly. Soon, we started running out of a bank of images. In mid-May there were a slight lifting of restrictions and we were allowed to return to work or one or two days a week. I made the decision that I would take the images by myself to try and keep ahead of the DigiVol volunteers. From June to October, I imaged around 15.000 envelopes and just managed to stay ahead of the volunteers, who transcribed at a rapid rate.

In November it was agreed that Bonnie could return as a volunteer and with her help the imaging productivity skyrocketed. By the end of 2020 we had barcoded and captured the image of 24.000 envelopes. At the start of January 2021, I dedicated two weeks to finish the remaining 6.000 envelopes, which we completed at the end of January.

State Herbarium bryophyte volunteers and student scholars busy at work. Photo: A. Thornhill.

As it currently stands the DigiVol volunteers have transcribed over 25.000 envelopes, which is about 80% of the collection. The transcribing is likely to be finished by the end of March at our current rate. Once this is done we will curate our records and then the information will be made available through the Australasian Virtual Herbarium.

When I designed the project I had no idea that it would be completed so quickly. The fact that many Australians had not much to do due to lockdown and so turned to DigiVol certainly helped, but it also helped that we had a dedicated team of volunteers, both at the herbarium and online, who dedicated many hours to complete this project so quickly. If you are interested to see what the DigiVol project looks like then it can be viewed here.

Written by State Herbarium botanist Andrew Thornhill.