by Stan Tekiela
November 7, 2010
Photo by Stan Tekiela©
There is no doubt, this fall is the year for mushrooms. The abundant late summer and early fall rain has produced a huge amount of mushrooms that are popping up all over the place. But just what are these things we call mushrooms? Are they a plant, an animal? And what do they do? What good are they? Let's take a quick look at the world of mushrooms.
First and foremost, mushrooms are more accurately called fungus or the plural is fungi. They are not plants and they are not animals. In fact they are organized in their own kingdom--Myceteae. This means they are so different from all other organisms on the earth that they are considered a separate group of organisms.
So what is a fungus? Well, they are a filamentous, spore bearing organism. Which is a fancy way of saying the structure of the organism looks like strands of thread or filaments. The best way I know to describe this is for you is to imagine a large amount of white or black sewing thread that has been pulled off the spool. Now jumbled up the thread and throw it on the ground and cover with dirt or slip it under the bark of a tree. The thread is the fungi or the actual living organism--growing and living.
Fungi don't have chlorophyll as plants do. Chlorophyll is what allows green plants make food for themselves. So what do fungi eat? Fungi obtain food by either infecting other living organisms such as trees or by breaking down dead organic matter. Infecting live organisms usually results in the death of the host which is called parasitism. Breaking down dead organic matter is called saprophytic. Some fungi will live in complete symbiotic relationship with a plant host which is called mycorrhizal. Both the plant and the fungi mutually benefit from the relationship.
The vast majority of fungi in the world, and there is estimated one million species of fungi, are saprophytic. Fungi are the original recyclers. If there wasn't any fungi in the world, every single tree that fell in the forest would still be laying there making it impossible to take a walk in the woods. Fungi are the first organism to get into the dead tree and start to break it down thus returning the nutrients locked up in the tree back to the soil.
All of this goes on without us seeing it because it takes place either underground or within the wood of the tree. What we do see is the reproduction of the fungi which we call mushrooms. So every time you see a mushroom it is actually the fruiting body of the fungi. To make an analogy, if an apple tree where a fungi, the tree (trunk and branches) would be the fungi and the apples would be the fruiting body or the mushrooms. What do apples do? They spread the seeds of the tree. It is how the tree reproduces. The mushroom is the fruiting body of the fungi and is a lot like the apple. It contains the "seeds" of the fungi. However fungi don't reproduce with seeds but rather they reproduce with spores. Thousands of spores released by each mushroom.
Spores are microscopic cells that float around on the wind. Somewhere on each and every mushroom is a surface which releases spores. So when you look underneath the cap of a typical mushroom you will see structures that look like gills. On these gills are millions of sacs that contain the spores. Some mushrooms lack gills and have tiny holes or pores under the cap. In this case the pores release the spores. This is by no means the end of how mushrooms release spores. There are many other ways that mushrooms release spores. Some have a slimly liquid mass that contains the spores, others have sticky surfaces that attract insects with a foul smell. The spores get stuck to the insects legs and are carried far and wide. The puffball (showing in the picture) has its spores inside the body of the mushroom. When the spores ripen the puffball splits open and trillions of spores float out in what appears to be a large puff of smoke.
Fungi only reproduce when conditions are right such as correct soil moisture and soil temperatures. If these conditions are not met, the fungi won't reproduce and we don't see any mushrooms. So in years where the rainfall is plentiful and the temperatures are just right, the fungi reproduce sending up lots of mushrooms. For each different shaped or colored mushroom (fruiting body) you see, it represents a different kind or species of fungi. Just a simple walk in the woods at this time of year will give you an idea that there are hundreds of fungi growing just beneath our feet all the time. It just takes some well timed rains to show themselves. Until next time...
Stan Tekiela is an author / naturalist and wildlife photographer who travels the US to study and photograph wildlife. He can be contacted via his web page at www.naturesmart.com
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