Of a Different Nature: Fungus is among us

By Michele L. Tremblay
August 2013

Fairy rings, toadstools, truffles, morels, puff balls, and death caps: a mushroom by any other name would still—well—smell like a mushroom.

Mushrooms are the fruiting body of fungi organisms—this is the part that appears above the ground. The mycelium is the part that lives below ground. Like an iceberg where only a small part is seen above water, most of a fungus lives underground. Mushrooms can appear seemingly before our eyes and then shrivel and disappear overnight.

For years, fungi were classified as plants (plantae kingdom) but scientists now consider them to be closer to animals (animalia kingdom) so they are now in their own (fungi) kingdom with yeasts and molds. Unlike plants, fungi lack chlorophyll. Instead, they function as saprophytes, parasites, and mycorrhizae. Saprophytes feed on organic matter including dead trees or the dead parts of living trees, leaves, conifer needles, and fecal matter. This process can sometimes be seen at night when fungi feed on decaying wood using an enzyme. The result is bioluminescence, commonly known as foxfire. As parasites, fungi attack and feed on plants and animals. People and animals, especially those with suppressed immune systems, living in or visiting the Mississippi River Valley and certain parts of the Great Lakes and Canada may contract Histoplasmosis, a fungal infection of the lungs that can spread throughout the body. Mycorrhizal mushrooms have a symbiotic relationship with certain plants, especially trees and shrubs. The mycelium obtains its carbohydrate nutrition from the soils and covers the plant’s root ends, which allows it to expand.

The largest living organism in the world is the fungi species, Armillaria ostoyae, which covers several square miles in the State of Oregon. From the early spring through early autumn before a hard frost is when mushrooms appear above ground. July through October is the peak season. Mushrooms can be delicious, nutritious, psychotropic, and deadly. The study of mushrooms is called mycology.

“Not all parts of the country are endowed with the mushroom diversity such as what we see in New Hampshire,” said Chris Kane, a local mycologist and conservation planning, land conservation stewardship, resource inventory, and field ecology consultant. “It all comes down to climate and rain, and New Hampshire has the right conditions for mushrooms.” Other hotspots for mushrooms in the United States include the Great Lakes, New England, and the Pacific Northwest.

The sizes, shapes, and colors of mushrooms here are remarkably diverse; New Hampshire is blessed with caps, cups, cones, cauliflowers, horns, leaves, slimes, jellies, corals, puffballs, and “shelfs.” Our state’s mushrooms have gills or lack them and are seen in many colors including white, ivory, tan, yellow, orange, pink, purple, red, blue, brown, and black.

Sometimes, mushrooms are confused with lichens but while they have a lot in common, they are not the same. “Lichens are an interesting collaboration between fungi and algae,” said Kane. “They each contribute the requirements of life to each other. The algae photosynthesize and the fungi provide, water, structure, and nutrients.”

According to the US Department of Agriculture, mushrooms are nutritious with some providing minerals such as potassium, selenium, and copper as well as B-complex vitamins that are difficult to obtain from other foods. In the West, most consumers eat the fruiting body of fungi but in the East, it is common to consume the mycelium part after fermentation processes. The species of Fusarium venenatum was collected from soil in the United Kingdom, which was observed as the primary source of nutrition for several species of beetles. In the mid 1980s, researchers converted F venenatum into mycoprotein, which is manufactured and marketed today as the line of Quorn products. Unlike other non-animal proteins, mycoprotein contains and retains after processing and cooking the essential amino acid, lysine.

At this time of year, government health departments issue warnings about eating wild mushrooms. Some mushrooms contain alkaloids that can create toxins in the body. The toxins can result in stomach upset, serious illness, or even death. Even seasoned experts can still be unsure and will reject questionable specimens rather than risk illness or worse. An experienced mentor, some simple tools such as a knife and soft brush, and a good identification guide are essential before you set out to forage. Any good guide will urge respect for private property and conservation when collecting mushrooms. “There is no generalized rule-of-thumb but new collectors should recognize three or four well-known poisonous mushrooms and learn to eliminate them, Kane said, “There is a long list of mushrooms that are easy to discern.” Kane cautioned that individuals can be allergic to any food, including non-poisonous mushrooms, so it is important to try small quantities to gauge reactions before tucking into a full mushroom supper.

The largest living things on earth, seemingly endless colors and shapes decorating lawns and forest floors, and the potential to feed the world. It’s good to know that the fungus is among us right now. Get out soon and see them before the first frost.

You can learn more (and have fun) with these selected resources 

Mind boggling Facts About Mushrooms

Cornell University Mushroom blog

Foxfire: bioluminescnncein the Forest

Animated bioluminescnec image

Boys! Raise Giant Mushroms in your Cellar by Ray Bradbury

Collins Mushroom Miscellany (a great read)

  • training
  • planning
  • research
  • writing
  • outreach
  • publications
  • development
  • more