What’s in a Mushroom

Only the Tip of the Fungus  

To most, the sight of a mushroom is not a memorable event. Scattered throughout our gardens and properties, mushrooms can be found in abundant quantities all over the world. Because of this, the mushroom can be easily overlooked as a mundane regularity. I intend to assure you that the truth is quite the opposite. In fact, mushrooms are components of some of the most successful, interesting, and important organisms on this planet.

A mushroom is the reproductive part of a much larger fungal organism. Fungi inhabit the soil in incredible numbers, mostly eating dead and decaying material including wood. This alone makes fungi incredibly important components in the ecosystem as without them detritus would quickly overwhelm the planet. Luckily for us, fungi thrive in most soils. Interestingly, the largest organism in the world is actually a fungus in Oregon. Thousands of acres large and thousands of years old, the appropriately named ‘humongous fungus’ epitomizes the tenacity and success that fungi have in our environment. One of the reasons for this is the incredible diversity of fungi. These organisms fill roles beyond decomposition, including helping the majority of plants with nutrient and water absorption. Some fungi are even able to kill and eat microscopic prey.

It’s All About the Spores

Different fungi rely on vastly different means of reproduction in order to expand their territory. Some fungi have developed specialized spore producing structures that we call mushrooms in order to reproduce. These structures grow in hiding and wait for the perfect time to emerge. Mushrooms can spend up to weeks in the soil growing in preparation for their final triumphant burst. When moisture and temperature conditions are just right, mushrooms are able to attain their final glorious form in record speed. Some species are able to fully sprout from the ground in a matter of hours. The mushroom stalk is important at keeping the spore producing top as high as possible. This allows for spores to be picked up by wind or other means. Many mushroom producing fungi have close relationships with plants, either working to break down wood or assisting plants in nutrient absorption.

Mushrooms produce millions of spores, and come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Some species disperse their spores into the wind, in the hopes that they will come into contact with spores from another mushroom. Other mushrooms, like the stinkhorn mushroom, utilize foul smells to draw in flies to help transport spores far and wide. There are even mushrooms that glow in the dark in the hopes that insects approach and disperse the precious spores. To put it very simply, given enough time and luck these spores are eventually able to link up with other spores and create new fungal networks of their own.

The Mushrooms in Your Area

In order to reliably find and observe a mushroom in nature, you must first familiarize yourself with the fungus that creates it. Many fungi that create mushrooms have developed close relationships with certain plants, and so they are easily found among their choice plants. Some of the most common tree types that foster such mushroom growth in the southeast US are pine, oak, hemlock, and poplar.  Without a trained eye, it can be difficult to identify specific mushroom species. Please do not pick and eat mushrooms you find unless you are absolutely sure of its type.

If you are interested in observing the growth patterns of mushrooms in a more intimate setting, it can be surprisingly easy to grow them yourself. I recommend you check out the great resources the USDA Agricultural Library has to offer on the subject at https://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/mushrooms.

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