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Taking a Look Below the Mushroom

If you understand the biology of mushrooms you, too, will have a better appreciation of specialty mushrooms and the mycelia they left behind.

"On the wreck of the year they flourished, sucked strange life from rotten stick and hollow tree, opened gills on lofty branch and bough, shown in the green grass rings of meadows.''

Or so an English author describes the magic of mushroom fairy rings and strange growths that inspired tales of toadstools and denizens of primeval forests. These strange plants that prefer the dark, with their reputation of both deadly poison and haute cuisine, are a fascinating group that deserves a closer look.

So what do mushrooms and icebergs have in common? It's what you don't see that matters most in both. A mushroom may appear to be a single small plant, but it is actually more like a tiny flower atop an immense tree canopy.

Mushrooms and fungi in general are primitive organisms considered plants even though they are non-photosynthetic and evolved separately. It is an immense kingdom, populated by more than 100,000 species and probably double that number as yet unclassified.

The mushroom itself is a fruiting body of a much larger, fast growing structure called fungal mycelium. These thin strands of cells create a single web-like mass that periodically produces spore bearing fruiting structures. It is estimated that within 24 hours a fungus colony may produce more than a kilometer of new mycelium. In fact, their ability to produce fruiting bodies so rapidly, often overnight, explains the link to magic and folklore.

If you have ever discovered a "fairy ring" of mushrooms in your lawn you may have thought it was merely a group of seedlings. The reality is the spawn of that fungus organism is actually underground at the very center of the ring. The original fungus grew in a perfectly symmetrical circle, spreading its mycelia outward from the center. When it reaches a certain size, or when conditions are ideal, it begins to reproduce by sending up fruiting bodies all around the outside edge. These mushrooms rise and spread their caps so that the slot "gills" underneath expand and release spores.

Fungi are perhaps the greatest decomposers on earth. Mycelium prefers to invade dead organic matter such as woody matter in the soil. If you've ever added soil amendments that have a lot of sawdust or wood chips, you'll likely find mushrooms in the garden working hard to decompose the cellulose.

You'll see them in the forests on rotting tree trunks or stumps. Dead trees infested with fungal mycelium feature brightly colored shelf-like fruiting bodies mounted on the outside. If you break apart the rotting wood you'll likely see the mycelium web work.

Specialty mushroom growers cultivate mycelium in order to harvest fruiting bodies. Only a small number of mushroom species are grown as food, and fewer yet are available at the supermarket. Online at Earthly Delights (http://www.earthly.com) you'll discover some really unique varieties of commercially grown and wild collected species.

A better understanding of the world of mushrooms and fungi makes a walk in the woods a whole new experience. As a student first introduced to this odd group of plants resulted in an epiphany. Instead of focusing on the trees and ferns I began to look in the dark corners of the forest for fruiting bodies. There I found neon-hued mushrooms, vibrant shelf fungi and a whole world of small lichens that are usually overlooked by all but the botanically minded.

Now that you understand the biology of mushrooms you, too, will have a better appreciation of specialty mushrooms and the mycelia they left behind. And in this wreck of the year you, too, may discover the science and beauty of wild fungi is far more amazing than toads on stools or fairies dancing in rings.

(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of Weekend Gardening on DIY-Do It Yourself Network.

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