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Mushrooms and Other Fungi


It’s fungi time! Between June and October is when fungi (often referred to as mushrooms) are fruiting everywhere. Especially after a rain, they seemingly spontaneously sprout in our yards, parks, golf courses, and throughout the forest. But, what are “fungi”?

Fungi are organisms classified as a kingdom separate from plants, animals, and bacteria. They lack chlorophyll, feed on decomposing plants and animals, and reproduce by sexual or asexual spores. Within the Fungi Kingdom are yeasts and molds, as well as mushrooms. “Mushrooms”, generally speaking, are fungi that have a stalk with a cap that has gills underneath. So, while all mushrooms are fungi, not all fungi are classified as mushrooms.

Do you remember watching the movie “Babe” and the cat telling the little pig everything has a purpose? It’s true. Everything does have a purpose – even fungi. Fungi are an integral part of our lives. We use it as yeast in bread and beer, in pesticides, and a broad gambit of pharmaceuticals. More importantly, did you know that 90% of the living stuff, called biomass, in a forest floor is fungal? That’s right – 90%! Bacteria, insects and their larvae, algae, and other things comprise the remaining 10%. Aside from being the best decomposers, fungi have a more noble and glorious purpose in the forest – a symbiotic relationship with trees. Trees use their roots for water and nutrients only to a small extent. What trees are highly dependent upon for healthy growth and survival are the thousands of miles of mycorrhizal fungal threads associated with their roots that tap into distant nutrient and water sources. In return, trees provide fungi with sugars needed to produce fruit bodies.

The study of fungi is called "Mycology". Traditionally mycology is considered a branch of botany even though fungi are more closely related to animals than plants. There are probably way more than a million species of fungi in the world. Most fungi species are microscopic, many of which little are known about. Fungi we can see are called "Macro-fungi" and there are thousands of these species found throughout North America. Macro-fungi are roughly broken-out as "Slime Moulds", "Sac Fungi", "Puffballs & Kin", "Jellies", "Corals", "Toothed", "Bracket", "Boletes", and "Gilled". To properly ID a fungus you need to consider not just color, but the cap, gill structure, stalk, root, what it's fruiting on, and sometimes even a take spore print. Yeah, it's complicated and often confusing enough that mistakes are easily made.

Pertaining to eating wild mushrooms (fungi): As a general rule it's best not to eat, or even taste, wild mushrooms as there are many edible and poisonous look-alikes. One mistake can be fatal. If wild mushrooms are handled, wash your hands before touching anywhere around your face, especially mouth and eyes, or handling food or drink.

Mushroom poisoning is a very serious matter. Should you deign to "take a walk on the wild side" and indulge regardless, here are very general guidelines pertaining to mushroom poisoning. Some folk can consume some species of mushrooms without ill effect, while others become violently ill. If, within an hour or so of ingestion, you become nauseous, crampy, "get the trots" or "squirts", and "pray to the porcelain goddess" or bellow for some guy named "Ralph", you'll probably live. Likely you'll be sick as a dog for a few days, but will remain on this side of the grass. However, if the onset of such symptoms, inclusive of convulsions and/or paralysis, doesn't occur for 4 to 24 hours after ingestion, get to the hospital IMMEDIATELY! Severe liver and kidney damage, among other debilitating maladies, can result from mushroom toxins. Not to scare anyone, but with some poisonous mushrooms the survival rate is less than 50%. Whoa! Be safe! Just don't take chances with wild 'shrums. Leave wild 'shrum eatin to the dogs, varmints, and other uncelebrated critters. Here’s a funny a friend shared that emphasizes this point.

A group of friends from a country church wanted to get together on a regular basis to have dinner and socialize. When it came time for Al and Janet Williams to be hosts, Janet naturally wanted to out-do all the others.

Al wanted to have mushroom-smothered steaks, but mushrooms are expensive. Janet told him, "Can’t have mushrooms Al, they’re too high!"

He said, "Why don't you go down in the pasture and pick some of those mushrooms? There’re plenty in the creek bed."

Janet said, "No, some wild mushrooms are poison..."

Al said, "Well, I’ve seen varmints down there eating them all the time and they’re OK."

Janet decided to give it a try. She picked a mess of mushrooms, washed, sliced, and diced them. Then went out on the back porch and gave Ole Spot (the yard dog) a double handful. Ole Spot ate every bite... All morning long Janet kept an eye on Ole Spot. The wild mushrooms didn’t seem to affect him a bit, so she decided to use them on the steaks.

Janet hired a helper lady from town and the mushroom-smothered steak dinner was a big success. After everyone finished eating, they relaxed and socialized. About then the helper lady came in and whispered in Janet’s ear, "Ms. Williams, Ole Spot just died..."

Janet went into hysterics and called her doctor. Soon they heard a siren wailing as an ambulance raced toward them. The EMTs and doctor jumped out with their bags and equipment. One by one, they took each person into the bathroom, gave them an enema, and pumped out their stomach. They were all looking pretty weak and pitiful sitting there around the church hall afterwards.

As the helper lady was finishing cleaning-up the mess she said, "You know Ms. Williams, that fella that ran over Ole Spot; he never even looked back."

Oh yeah, if interested in identifying fungi you find, or just learning a bit more about them, the following two books are most helpful:
• Mushrooms of Northeast North America: Midwest to New England by George Barron; published by Lone Pine; about $25
• National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mushrooms; published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.; about $20

Fungi to ID
:: Fungi to ID ::
Fungi: Slime Moulds, Jellies, and Crusts
:: Fungi: Slime Moulds, Jellies, and Crusts ::
Fungi: Coral Fungi
:: Fungi: Coral Fungi ::
Fungi: Sac Fungi
:: Fungi: Sac Fungi ::
Fungi: Bird's Nests
:: Fungi: Bird's Nests ::
Fungi: Morels and Stinkhorns
:: Fungi: Morels and Stinkhorns ::
Fungi: Puffballs and Earthstars
:: Fungi: Puffballs and Earthstars ::
Fungi: Tooth Fungi
:: Fungi: Tooth Fungi ::
Fungi: Boletes and Kin
:: Fungi: Boletes and Kin ::
Fungi: Bracket Fungi - Polypores & Kin
:: Fungi: Bracket Fungi - Polypores & Kin ::
Fungi: Gilled Fungi
:: Fungi: Gilled Fungi ::