Our Window on Nature

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Fabulous Fungi

Filed under: Plants — Lowell Christie -- September 5, 2014 @ 10:50 am

MushroomThere are fungus among us; we call them mushrooms. Just what season they arrive depends upon the arrival of the rainy season, but they will pop up just about anywhere, even in the desert. You can imagine our amazement when a botanist held up a sample of a mushroom of the Sonoran desert. It appears only during the monsoon season and that means July and August. Of course, they look pretty desiccated even in their prime.

Awareness of the fungus, and of its curious properties, stretches far back into antiquity. The Bible refers to these strange plants. Ancient Greeks and Romans harvested them for food, and for their poisons for although many are quite edible, the wrong ones can be deadly.

Some species of mushrooms are known more for their effect on the mind than for their flavor. They cause hallucinations. It’s for this reason that the fungi engender superstitions and no small measure of fear. Not so among certain Indian tribes living in the desert Southwest, and in Mexico and Central America. They seek hallucinogenic mushrooms for use in religious rituals. According to their beliefs, such visions bring messages from the gods.

In other societies fungi were thought to be magical. You have to admit that some do have strange, even bizarre shapes, and they do seem to materialize out of nowhere.

You have no doubt observed that mushrooms pop up within hours after a rain, so it’s easy to see the origin of another belief of primitive people. It seems obvious to them that mushrooms were the result of lightning.

The word toadstool is still often used as a generic term for poisonous fungi. Perhaps the word was originally coined because toads were believed to be poisonous, or perhaps because the fungi grew in the same sort of wet, darkened areas where toads reside. Either way, the distinction between toadstools and mushrooms has no scientific basis, and it’s useless as a way to identify which specimens might cause illness or death.

The mycelium, or business end of the fungus, lies underground. Lacking chlorophyll and the ability to synthesize its own food, mycelium performs all the functions normally assigned to the roots, stem, and leaves of other, more normal, plants. You’ve probably seen mycelium without recognizing it as such; it’s the white, web-like material you occasionally see when you pick up a layer of decaying leaves. Those white strands are absorbing water and nutrients that were first processed by plants long dead.

To bear fruit, mushrooms need that large supply of food and moisture. The most common propagation method is for a button-like shape to push its way upward through the soil. Think about it! An emerging fungus is nearly all water, yet it is strong enough to push through a crack in a sidewalk or to shoulder through a hard-packed road. And once it meets the air, only a few days pass before the button has risen on a stem and unfolded like an umbrella.

The underside of the umbrella contains the gills, and they’re needed to release millions of microscopic spores. Only a tiny fraction of these spores needs to land where growing conditions are favorable for more fungi to be established.

Have you ever seen a fairy ring? Over the years, certain species of fungi radiate in an ever-widening pattern, producing the ring beloved in folklore. Just this spring we saw one almost a yard in diameter. That seemed pretty impressive to us, but when reading up on fairy rings we discovered that some fairy rings become huge, and some have been growing for 600 years.

As you must know, mushrooms vary greatly in size, shape, and color, and they are as intricate as any flower. Some are almost microscopic, but we read of an Australian specimen that measured 5 feet in circumference and weighed 17 pounds. “Bird’s nest” fungi we’ve seen only in pictures, but puff balls are easy to spot. Tap a ripe one, and it gives off a cloud of spores.

But none of these features help separate edible from deadly wild mushrooms, and, in fact, there are no clear signs. In some cases a perfectly edible mushroom becomes poisonous with age. Other species may be safe for some people and poisonous to others. Still others are harmful only if they are eaten day after day. To make things even worse, there are several perfectly edible mushroom species that have evil twins, lookalikes that are quite poisonous.

Lacking one of those French truffle-hunting pigs, that are said to have unerring noses, we follow this rule about harvesting wild fungi. If we aren’t positive about the identification, we don’t eat it. That’s not a bad rule to follow when harvesting any wild plant.

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