Sunday, May 10, 2009

Let us go a mushrooming !

Last week the boys and I went on a mushroom hunt. 
We looked in our yard and found several mushrooms growing on wood but there was no
  variety so we decided to check out Botanic Park and Gardens in the city....
It was a lovely grey autumn afternoon, perfect for mushroom hunting!We had only stepped a few meters from our car when we noted mysterious humps in the ground. Carefully scraping some dirt away from one mound we discovered our first fungi!On with the hunt,we moved into the gardens. Carefully exploring the darkest paths we didn't have to go "far in" before we found variety after variety. All the photos below are examples of what we saw. Be warned these pictures are not for the faint-hearted(especially the brightly coloured ones!)On a side-note we observed that no mushrooms grew in the fern house which is damp and moist...but perhaps not warm enough?

What are Mushrooms?
 Mushrooms are unique. They are neither animal or plant.
Some people consider them plants for various reasons, but they differ from plants in that they lack the green chlorophyll that plants use to manufacture their own food and energy. For this reason they are placed in a Kingdom of their own," The Kingdom of Fungi".

So, what are mushrooms? A mushroom is but the fruit of the fungal organism that produces them, just like an apple tree produces apples to bear seeds to ensure the continuation of it's species, so the fungal organism produces mushrooms that carry spores to ensure the continuation of it's own species.
This means that by picking a mushroom we do not harm the fungus itself, because the main body of the organism lies underground in the form of a network of minute threads called 'Hyphae'.
When two compatible hyphae meet they join together to form another network called the 'Mycelium' which grows quietly and unseen under ground for most of the year until the conditions are right for fruiting and that's when we get to see mushrooms.

Unfortunately, mushrooms are very delicate things, they do not last, some have a life span of less than a day others may survive one week, and a group of tougher mushrooms may last months but they have a tough woody texture.
Most fleshy mushrooms do not last, and this makes researching them very difficult.

Since we do not know where they are till they fruit, we only get a few days to study them each time, and this is seasonal.You may ask why we don't mark the spot they fruited so they can be studied more next time? Good idea, but mushrooms are funny things, you may see a mushroom on a patch of your front lawn this year, but it may not fruit again for several years, or it may fruit again next week, or you may find a completely different kind of mushroom in the same area.

Each Mushroom carries within it millions or even billions of spores, to the extent, that in the case of some kinds of mushrooms grown commercially, workers have to wear dust masks to protect themselves from the spore dust and breath easily.
Only a few of these spores manage to survive and grow into a mycelial network producing new mushrooms . To make life even more difficult, two compatible spores have to meet to be able to produce mushrooms.

What is their role in life?
Without fungi, we would not be able to go for a stroll in the bush.
Imagine if every tree or branch that fell down just stayed there for ever, or imagine how deep the layer of autumn leaves would be after a few years if they did not rot.This is the main role of fungi and mushrooms, they are the main recyclers in nature, they break down wood and humus back into their original components and therefore not only making it easier for our little adventures in the wild but they also provide food for living plants by returning dead trees and forest littler to simple organic materials in a form suitable for plant use.

It amazes me how these delicate little things that can be kicked into nothing have the ability to completely break down even the biggest tree.
They take turns on the same tree, not out of the kindness of their heart of course but because mushrooms differ in their ability to break down certain materials.

So, when a tree falls down, it may be attacked first by, say, an Oyster Mushroom, which will slowly decompose the tree until it reaches a stage of decomposition that is not longer suitable for it to sustain it's existence.
This is when another, or other mushrooms will take over, say, Gallerina sp. which will break the tree down further until it is taken over by the Red Pouch mushroom for instance. This succession will continue until there is no more tree left. This describes mushrooms called 'Saprophytic Fungi' due to their feeding habits.

Not all mushrooms grow on wood though. Another group of mushrooms grow from the ground feeding on humus and any organic materials contained in the soil, but at the same time they form a special beneficial relationship with live trees, this relationship is called a 'Symbiotic Relationship' where the tree provides the mushroom with some of the glucose they produce and in return the mushroom gives the tree essential minerals for it's growth, this exchange of nutrients takes place through the roots of the tree.

This is why some mushrooms are always associated with certain trees. A group of symbiotic mushrooms grow underground and can only be found by digging for them, this often requires specially trained dogs and even pigs are used to find them. Some of this group are the most prized and expensive mushrooms like the NZ Perigold Black Truffle which fetches up to NZ$3000/kg and is sought after by renowned chefs worldwide.

Not all mushrooms are do gooders though.
Some of them are 'Parasitic', they attack live trees causing deadly diseases.
An example of this is the Honey mushroom,( this is not the same as the Honey Comb mushroom which is a commercial edible sp.) which does it's fair share of damage to NZ trees.

Some mushrooms look just like you would expect a mushroom to look, while others are no less than amazing.Some look just like miniature birds' nests, others look like a horse's tail, some look just like coral reefs people dive in the deep ocean to see.
Aren't they poisonous?
Yes, some mushrooms are poisonous.
But what does poisonous mean? If it means deadly, then let me reassure you, there are only a handful of mushrooms that can kill a human being.Most of the other poisonous mushrooms, so called 'Toad Stools', are harmful, but their effect is limited to sickness and stomach upsets, but wait, don't go rushing out eating them.People do react differently to different mushrooms, like, I could eat a mushroom and not be affected while you might eat the same one and feel a little sick or vice versa.Either way, no one should attempt to eat a wild mushroom without being 100% sure of it's identity. If in doubt, throw it out!!
The reassuring part is, the deadly mushrooms are very few and are thus very well described and as long as you do your homework, you won't die.

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