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Table of Contents
They are Fungi! (Fungus)
Although we often eat and see mushrooms, they belong a separate category of living things. Plants are characterized by using photosynthesis to produce energy. Animals are defined by their ability to move and eat living matter to produce energy. Fungi do not do either of these but relate to animals more than plants! They decompose dead matter to gain energy.
Fungi range in size from very small to huge, literally the size of football fields (although most of a large fungus might be underground)! They are known to grow in a wide range of ecosystems, including deserts, the deep sea, and have been found to survive conditions in space. Tracking the evolution of mushrooms and fungi can be hard because their fossil record is limited compared to animals or plants. It is still debated if mushrooms appeared before or after plants because of the lack of clear fossil record evidence.
Mushrooms vs. Toadstools
The first use of the word “mushrooms” was back in the 15th century. It was like the word “moss,” which is the green plant that grows on the sides of trees and logs. Another word that is used a lot is toadstool. “Toadstool” comes from old England, where toads were found sitting on mushrooms like a stool. A lot of these toads were poisonous, leading people to believe those mushrooms were poisonous too. So people used the word “toadstool” to describe poisonous mushrooms, while the term “mushrooms” was reserved for safe to eat mushrooms. This is no longer the case! There is no accepted difference between using the word mushroom or toadstool.
Because of their small size, mushrooms were seen as homes for small fairies and gnomes in old European folklore. Mushrooms like the red-with-white speckled one shown above –Amanitae muscaria – often inspire pictures of witches brewing potions or stories of magic powers. Besides these folk stories, there is much to learn about the scientific structure, benefits and negatives to mushrooms.
Parts of a Mushroom
The simplest image of mushrooms we have is probably the stem and big cap. But neither of these is the most important part of the mushroom! In the ground, mushrooms have a network of fibers called mycelium, which find nutrients to bring back to the mushroom. Sometimes mycelium spreads for miles and miles – the largest mushroom’s mycelium is almost 2,200 acres and has lived from over 2,400 years! The mycelium is what decomposes organic matter into usable energy for the mushroom. It first covers the food source in enzymes which break it down into simple chemicals. The mycelium absorbs these chemicals and transports them back to the main part of the mushroom.
The mycelium connects at the volva of the mushroom, which is buried underground. From the volva, parts of the mushroom become more familiar. The stem grows up from the volva. The job of the stem is moving nutrients from the volva to the cap of the mushroom. The cap often looks like a top hat but can vary in size and shape. The top of the cap can have scales to protect the cap.
Fungi reproduce using spores. So the second most important part is the underside of the cap, where the spore producing surfaces are. These can be a variety of shapes. The oyster mushroom has gills, porcini mushrooms have distinct pores, while lion’s mane has teeth. All of these features have the same task: they release spores which travel far from the mother mushroom carried by the wind or animals. These spores fall to the ground and grow a new mushroom, and the cycle continues.
Mushrooms have been used for food for a very long time, particularly in Chinese, Korean, and Japanese cooking. In terms of nutritional content, mushrooms are over 90% water. The other 10% is high in minerals, vitamins B and D, and phosphorus. Because of its savory flavors, mushroom is often used as a substitute for meat in vegan and vegetarian diets. Shitake mushrooms are the most popular mushroom, contributing almost 25% of cultivated mushrooms. Common dishes made with mushrooms are soups, pasta, pizza, or just stuffed mushrooms.
In addition to taste, mushrooms have been used as medicine for thousands of years. The chemicals in mushrooms are antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, and perhaps can help prevent and treat cancer. They are often used to fight the growth of tumors and strengthen the immune system. There are also reports of mushrooms that help prevent diseases of the mind, like Parkinson’s disease and dementia which affect the elderly.
Lots of mushrooms can be poisonous, and often have very bitter tastes. Being poisonous is evolutionary – mushrooms must protect their spores that will eventually produce offspring, so they are poisonous to fend off predators. However, only a few are very deadly, causing death by kidney or liver damage, or heart damage. Usually, mushroom poisoning will cause unpleasant symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, nausea, and fatigue. These effects are usually not deadly, and the human body can usually heal itself against mushroom poisoning.
Mushroom: A type of fungus that uses spores to reproduce. They are usually above ground
Fungi: A kingdom of classification for living things including mushrooms, yeast, and mold. They are the main decomposers in ecological systems.
Decompose: Break down and decay
Spore: A type of that cell that can develop into an individual of its mother species by itself.
Toadstool: Another name for mushroom
Mycelium: Network of threads that make up the “roots” of a fungus or mushroom
Nutrients: Chemicals that are needed for growth and for maintenance of a living thing.
Volva: Cup structure at base of the fruiting body of the mushroom. It is what the fruiting body of the mushroom expands and matures from.
Flesch Kincaid Grade Level: 7.5
Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease: 62.2
- Staff, Science X. “First mushrooms appeared earlier than previously thought.” Phys.org, 22 Jan. 2020, phys.org/news/2020-01-mushrooms-earlier-previously-thought.html.
- “Fungi, Folklore, and Fairyland.” Public Domain Review, 25 Nov. 2022, publicdomainreview.org/essay/fungi-folklore-and-fairyland.
- “Mushrooms.” Nutrition Source, 2 Mar. 2022, www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/food-features/mushrooms.
- Vane, Christopher H. “Monitoring Decay of Black Gum Wood (Nyssa sylvatica) during Growth of the Shiitake Mushroom (Lentinula edodes) Using Diffuse Reflectance Infrared Spectroscopy.” Applied Spectroscopy, vol. 57, no. 5, 1 May. 2003, pp. 514-7, doi:10.1366/000370203321666515.
- Fulton, April. “Mushrooms Are Good For You, But Are They Medicine?” NPR, 5 Feb. 2018, www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2018/02/05/581917882/mushrooms-are-good-for-you-but-are-they-medicine.