Mysterious Mushrooms

By Anita Sanchez

Mush­rooms are just one type of the strange organ­isms called fun­gi. What is a fun­gus, any­way? For cen­turies, sci­en­tists weren’t quite sure. It looks sort of like a plant, but it eats like an ani­mal. Fun­gus can’t make its own food from sun­light, air, and water as green plants can. Just as ani­mals do, fun­gus has to feed on oth­er things — liv­ing or dead. 

A fun­gus starts out as a spore, a speck so tiny that it’s almost invis­i­ble. Car­ried on the wind, spores can trav­el far from the par­ent fun­gus. If they land in the right place, they ger­mi­nate, send­ing out slen­der, root­like threads. 

They grow into webs called mycelia, which look like a tan­gle of whitish yarn. Almost every­where you walk, on grass, for­est, or pave­ment, there’s a dense web beneath your feet. They wind their way through soil, reach deep into rot­ting logs, poke into dead ani­mals. And all that fun­gus is hungry.

Mush­rooms are just one type of the strange organ­isms called fun­gi. What is a fun­gus, any­way? For cen­turies, sci­en­tists weren’t quite sure. It looks sort of like a plant, but it eats like an ani­mal. Fun­gus can’t make its own food from sun­light, air, and water as green plants can. Just as ani­mals do, fun­gus has to feed on oth­er things — liv­ing or dead. 

A fun­gus starts out as a spore, a speck so tiny that it’s almost invis­i­ble. Car­ried on the wind, spores can trav­el far from the par­ent fun­gus. If they land in the right place, they ger­mi­nate, send­ing out slen­der, root­like threads. They grow into webs called mycelia, which look like a tan­gle of whitish yarn. Almost every­where you walk, on grass, for­est, or pave­ment, there’s a dense web beneath your feet. They wind their way through soil, reach deep into rot­ting logs, poke into dead ani­mals. And all that fun­gus is hungry.

When you eat a crunchy pret­zel or a tough piece of meat, it goes into your stom­ach where acids and chem­i­cals called enzymes soft­en and dis­solve it, so you can absorb its nutri­tion into your body. Fun­gi digest their food first, then eat it after­wards. The mycelia ooze out pow­er­ful enzymes that can soft­en almost any­thing, even wood or bone. Once the meal is nice and mushy, the mycelia slurp up the nutrients. 

Some fun­gi eat dead ani­mals. Oth­ers pre­fer dead plants. Some are picky eaters: one type of fun­gus eats only pine cones, while a dif­fer­ent species eats only pine nee­dles. Some fun­gi eat oth­er fun­gi. There are more than a mil­lion kinds of fun­gus, in all shapes and sizes and col­ors. One kind looks weird­ly like a human hand reach­ing out of the ground, and it’s called dead men’s fin­gers.” Oth­ers look like horse hoofs, or striped birds’ tails. Fun­gi excel at break­ing down the tough bonds that hold the mol­e­cules of wood togeth­er. When fun­gus feeds on a rot­ting log, it turns the dead wood into crumbly, dark soil called humus, which is per­fect for grow­ing new trees.

Per­haps the most notice­able forms of fun­gi are the lit­tle men in the man­tles of vel­vet brown, the umbrel­la-shaped mush­rooms we see scat­tered across the for­est floor after a rain. Mush­rooms are just the fruit­ing part of the fun­gus. Think of those strands of yarn-like mycelia as the roots, trunk, and branch­es of an apple tree. The mush­room is the apple. Apples have seeds inside them, mush­rooms have spores, which grow on the under­side of the umbrel­la. But even if you get down on the ground and peek under­neath the mush­room cap, you can’t see the spores, they’re too small.

Spores need damp soil to ger­mi­nate. So the mycelia, down there under the ground, wait until things are nice and moist before send­ing up their spore-mak­ing machines. But the ground might dry up soon, so there’s no time to waste. That explains the mys­tery of why mush­rooms will lit­er­al­ly spring up overnight after a rain. 

Keep an eye out for mush­rooms on the Arbore­tum trails this fall. You may not have enjoyed all the damp and wet we had this sum­mer, but the lit­tle men of the for­est have come out to enjoy the rain.


Fall 2021

Volume 39 , Number 3

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