Although past its best, the sandy stiltball found on one of my regular haunts is still a striking fungus. It is also rather rare and one of a select group of fungi to receive additional protection through a provision in the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Found on just 30 or so sites, half of which are located in Suffolk and Norfolk, the species is associated with dry, free-draining soils, typically sandy in nature and open in aspect. The preference for such open and dry habitats might seem a little unusual for a fungus, most of which are associated with damp conditions, but the sandy stiltball is characteristic of such sites, earning it the tag of ‘desert fungus’ from one of our leading naturalists.
This particular fruiting body sits just over a foot from the base of an isolated hedgerow pine on dry sandy ground but many seem to be associated with decaying elm stumps. It has a long stalk, robust in nature and resembling a piece of dead wood or – somewhat morbidly – bone, topped with a rusty puffball the colour of slowly rotting orange peel. To some extent it resembles an oversized safety match.
The species was first described as new to science on the basis of a specimen found growing on a bank near Bungay in 1782, the discoverer referring to it as an ‘extraordinary vegetable production’. It is easy to see why it caused such a reaction and it remains one of the few fungi that can be identified reliably from a passing car – several of the known colonies grown on roadside verges where the open and dry conditions are favourable. One of these colonies has even been designated as a roadside nature reserve, managed by Suffolk Wildlife Trust.
The fruiting body that sits atop the woody stem, develops from a gelatinous ‘egg’ which forms underground. This thrusts through the soil’s surface and goes on to form the dry puffball-like structure on which the spores are carried. The spores are usually ‘liberated’ by the breeze or by rain; as this happens so the form and structure of the fruiting body is lost, eventually leaving just the tough stem behind. Now that I have seen the species at this site I will undertake a wider search next summer.