Fungi fruit

By Scott Stegenga
Table Rock State Park

Fungi come in many forms. Many are attractive, even beautiful, while others appear ugly and repulsive. Some are rigidly attached to trees or logs, some are slimy or jelly-like, while others we know as mushrooms.

The common image we have of a mushroom includes a stalk with a cap and “gills.” The word mushroom is also used more loosely to describe other types of fungi such as puffballs, coral fungi, cup fungi and stinkhorns to name just a few. If adequate moisture exists, late summer into early fall is an ideal time to find mushrooms emerging from the soil. Mushrooms are also known as toadstools. This name has come from German folklore where toads sit upon a mushroom and catch flies that are drawn to the mushroom.

These fascinating fungi are not like green plants that make their own food but must gain nutrients by other means. Mushrooms rely on the death and decay of other organisms. They not only take in nutrients for themselves but also aid the decaying process, making nutrients more readily available to other living plants. Some trees are very dependent on this mutual give and take.

The main body of a mushroom is hidden underground. It spreads by sending out small root-like threads called mycelia. The part we see above ground is the fruiting part, like apples on a tree. Instead of forming seeds, the underside of the cap releases tiny spores into the air to foster reproduction when they land on the proper surface. Sometimes a ring of mushrooms are seen on an open lawn. This represents the outer edge of the spreading mycelia. These rings are called fairy rings that seem to pop up overnight. Grass within the circle of fungi is often a richer green from the beneficial action of the mycelia below. Mycelia may grow more than 100 years and form a network well over 100 yards wide if conditions are right.

Fruiting mushrooms come in many shapes and brilliant colors. Some mushrooms are edible, but many are toxic to humans. It takes a careful level of expertise to determine which mushrooms a person is able toconsume.

Obtaining mushrooms from a store is the much safer route to take. Animals such as squirrels and box turtles are immune to the toxicity of mushrooms and can eat them without any harm.

Despite the strange appearance and toxic characteristics of some mushrooms, if it were not for all fungi the critical process of decomposition would be dysfunctional, disrupting the balance of nature.