What is a mushroom?


These beauties appeared like magic in my lawn the other day, no doubt stimulated by our recent rains. I wish I knew their name. After looking through my guide books,  I’m still not for sure of their identification.   

Photo made with  Leica M10 and an old 135mm f 4.0 Tel-Elmar lens

What is a mushroom? One can boil it down to this. A mushroom is a fungus. That’s right, that itchy stuff that gets between your toes when you walk around in public showers. Fungi are everywhere. The study of fungi (mycology) is an expansive subject. The mushroom with which we are so familiar  (that we find growing in our lawn, see in the woods or buy in the grocery store) is merely the reproductive part of the fungus. A fungus, whether it grows on the forest floor, between your toes, or on the underside of your rose’s foliage (blackspot), is a complex organism that cannot produce its own food  but must gather nutrients as a parasite, attacking plants and animals. The plant being your roses or tree roots on the forest floor, and the animal being a human who gets a fungus between his toes.

The fungus, in all actuality, is made up of tiny, white filament-like mycelium that move through an organism such as your skin and between your toes as with our extended example of Athlete’s Foot. But let’s move away from Athlete’s Foot. Fungi are on the forest floor, in our lawns, or on a rose bush. They are collecting nutrients from living or dead organic matter. When a fungus attacks the bottom side of a leaf on your rose bush, what is happening is a tiny fungus has infiltrated the leaf, gathering up nutrients as a parasite. As the fungus grows, parts of the leaf’s tissue dies. Thus, the blackspot on the foliage of your roses. If the fungus persists, it will eventually kill the leaf, and the leaf will drop off. What we don’t realize is that there are tiny (almost microscopic) fruiting structures produced by the fungus that release reproductive spores, enabling the fungus to spread throughout the rose bush. 

The fungus (mushrooms) you see on the forest floor are merely the fruiting structure of the fungus that is spreading underground on plants and tree roots. Sometimes the tree is already dead. At other times the fungus will attach itself to living tree roots. All of this is going on, unseen, just below the ground until cooling rains come which cause the fungus to put up its ‘flowers’ (mushrooms). The mushroom, to put it quite bluntly, is the reproductive organ of the fungus. You may have seen fairy rings in the lawn after a rain. They are an indication that a fungus’ mycelium is in the soil, growing among the grass’ roots. The pretty little fairy rings of our children’s stories, reflect ‘another world,’ living and thriving out of our sight. No wonder they encourage magical fairy tales of wood sprites and such. Patches of fungi can become mammoth. I read somewhere there is a fungus in Oregon that encompasses more than 2,000 acres, and is millennia old! 

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