Microbes in the Mountains: Weird Wonderful 'Shrooms!
Updated: Nov 17, 2020
This time of year, there are so many interesting things growing in the forest that we pass on the way to the summits we are hiking. As we walk on challenging
terrain, we can’t help but see the trees towering above us and the sky beyond, the rocks, dirt and uncovered roots ready to trip us (well, hopefully we see them before they trip us).
If we look a little closer though, we see the moss and lichen clinging to fallen trees, stumps, rocks next to the trail and beyond where it looks like no one has ever stepped. Even closer inspection gleans all manner of shapes, colors and consistencies that catch the eye; from the darkest black to the brightest yellows, oranges, reds, blues and purples bursting from the ground in all kinds of strange shapes or clinging to trees and rocks. They are so weird and pop out in the most unexpected places - you never know what you’re going to get!
We’ve talked about the ‘Wood-Wide Web’ - an interconnected network, not of cables and electronics, but of trees, plants, soil, and fungi that allows the natural world to symbiotically exist and actually communicate.
What does that have to do with mushrooms you ask? Mushrooms are the way the fungi release spores into the environment - it’s the way they spread into new areas. The mushrooms we can see are actually just the fruiting body of the organisms.
Any given mushroom may house and release as many as a billion spores, which are carried by the wind or water and can then germinate if they land in a hospitable environment. They are an important food source for both humans and animals and are an important crop with huge economic importance. And they are pretty darn interesting!
Let’s start with the basics, mushrooms are not plants, research now shows they are more like animals than plants - though many terms used in their description sound like plant terms. And although they belong in the field of microbiology they are also not like bacteria. Fungi, plants and animals all belong to the domain of life known as eukaryotes, while bacteria belong to the domain prokaryotes.
What’s the difference? Let’s break down the word. ‘Eu’ in Latin means well or true, while ‘kary(on)’ means kernel or nut. Eukaryotes store their DNA in a nut called the nucleus while prokaryotes let all that DNA just hangout in the cell goop we call the cytoplasm.
The fungal body is called mycelium and it’s parts are microscopic, generally existing underground or inside wood. The mycelium is made out of a web of tiny filaments called hyphae and the cell walls are made out of chitin - the same material as the hard outer shells of insects and arthropods. They do not contain chlorophyll and do not perform photosynthesis like plants, but instead obtain their nutrition from metabolizing nonliving organic matter, i.e. they break down and ‘eat’ dead plants.
Mycelium can grow in and among plant roots, exchanging the nutrients it produces with plants in what is called the mycorrhizae, which benefits both plants and fungi. This underground body can be quite small or spread hundreds of square miles!
Mushrooms are actually the “fruit” of fungi produced when the mycelium has stored enough materials and nutrients and essential compounds and conditions are right. Many times, these fruits are microscopic, and we have no idea that there’s fungus growing everywhere, but sometimes these “fruits” pop out in the most bizarre shapes, colors and sizes!
Let's take a look at the basic parts of a mushroom - although sometimes their
shape makes the parts a little difficult to identify. It's important to remember that most of the organism is microscopic and often underground - we wouldn't even know it was there until it was time to reproduce! In general, the microscopic spores are produced and released via the gills. Then they are spread by wind or other means to a hospitable spot with enough water and nutrients to grow, and the process starts again. NOTE: Most mushrooms are toxic, even in very small amounts - so DON'T TOUCH!
You may have noticed that after rain, you suddenly have a bumper crop of weird mushrooms all over - where did they come from? How did they get so big so fast? Well, instead of dividing cells (which takes a lot of energy), mushrooms grow by enlarging existing cells (a baby (pinhead) mushroom has about the same number of cells as a mature mushroom!) The cells are enlarged with water, which is a critical piece to the growth of mushrooms - it can grow as fast as water can be pumped into the cells! However, too much water can choke off growth and too little and the mushroom withers and dies.
So on your next venture outside, look up, look down, look all around, there are fascinating things all around. The more I've learned about mushrooms the more I love them! We've only scratched the surface and I'm guessing we will explore more about mushrooms. In the meantime head to the store, and try some of the many foods made from mushrooms like Truffle Popcorn or Mushroom Arugula Salad or even Mushroom Coffee! Foraging for mushrooms to consume should only be done by experienced mycologists (after reading this article, you are not even close!). There are lots of resources to get you started like the USDA Field Guide. Note: Except for the diagrams - these are all pictures that I have taken while out and about in NH's White Mountains! Do you have any cool pics? Send me a comment, I'd love to see them!
NOTE: Even experts have difficulty identifying mushrooms for eating, so for goodness sake, do NOT eat mushrooms (and watch your kids and dogs) unless you have the assurances of an expert (not just a picture on the internet) that it is safe to do so!
Do you have some cool mushroom pics or facts - please share in the comments below!