Web of knowledge, web of life, web of wonder


Courtesy of European Environment Agency (EEA)

It's October, it's late in the season and it's been a bad year for mushrooms in Finland. Webcaps, a type of mushroom found particularly in the boreal and temperate forests of northern Europe, are no exception.

Webcaps play an important role in these forest ecosystems. They are mycorrhizal fungi that live in symbiosis with the trees, providing nutrients and protection from diseases and receiving sugars in return. However, there is a delicate balance to this symbiosis. When nitrogen levels in the forest floor are low, webcaps provide the necessary nitrogen from both organic and inorganic nitrogen compounds. If nitrogen levels are high, either naturally or due to pollution or fertiliser use, then
the trees reduce sugar supply to the webcaps and their growth is degraded. In these conditions, more tree means less mushroom.

For humans, webcaps offer equally varied benefits. Local people of course derive many advantages from the forest ecosystems that they support. From a cultural perspective, many Finns have a deep love of outdoor activities centred on the country's forests and lakes. Equally, tourism and other services and goods that forests provide have considerable economic worth.

But webcaps aren't just valuable because of their contribution to the surrounding ecosystem. As we will discover, besides their intrinsic beauty, their chemical characteristics have attracted the attention of scientists and craftspeople.

One forest among many

Tuula Niskanen and Aino Juslén are visiting Mariefred Forest in search of the last webcaps of the season.

Situated about 30 kilometres north-east of Helsinki, the most noticeable aspect of Mariefred Forest is the silence. There is no wind, no traffic, no voices. The trees stand close together in a natural, haphazard way, not in regimented rows as in

Overhead the canopy cover is almost complete with a mixture of spruce, pine, aspen and birch providing lots of shade. Underfoot, a  deep carpet of green mosses sparkles with moisture in the late afternoon light. This living material helps muffle the noise within the forest and provides a calm, relaxing silence. The closed canopy and moss carpet maintain a cool, moist microclimate that enables a rich diversity of forest fungi, plants and animals to thrive.

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