What is a Mushroom?
by Ursula Basch
Herbal Bear School of Botanical Medicine
Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of certain fungi. Most of us think of fruits such as apples and berries - which reproduce by producing seeds that can be sown and develop into new plants. Mushrooms produce spores - which act very much like seeds and are capable of producing new fungi. Mushrooms are not plants; they are related to molds, mildews, rusts, smuts, and yeasts, and are classified in the Fungi Kingdom.
The Mushroom Is Only The Tip Of The Iceberg.
The actual organism that produces mushrooms is called mycelium. It is composed of many fungal cells that are linked together. The mycelium typically lives in soil or wood. Sometimes you can see it if you pick up an old log that has fallen on the forest floor. It can often look like a thin white layer on the ground that you just exposed. If conditions are just right - mycelium will generate new cells which will develop into the structure we call a mushroom.
So you think you know what a mushroom looks like.
Well you might be surprised. Mushrooms come in all shapes and sizes. The typical umbrella shaped mushrooms, which have gills underneath their caps, like a portabella mushroom, is only one example. Some mushrooms grow off trees, resembling a small shelf. A mushroom called the Lion's Mane forms pure white "icicles". There are mushrooms that resemble cups, sponges, and the list goes on.
Fungi have many different ecological roles.
Here are just two examples -
Many fungi decompose dead organic matter such as leaves and wood. Without fungi we would be unable to walk through the woods, because the fallen trees would never decompose and eventually the forests would just turn into heaps of fallen timber. Fungi not only break down the material, they also free up the nutrients that are bound in the plant material and return it to the soil to be recycled for the next generation of plants.
Fungi also play an enormously important role in aiding plant growth. Certain fungi are mycorrhizal. Mycorrhizal fungi have a mutually beneficial (symbiotic) relationship with the roots of certain plants. The fungus colonizes the plants roots. The plant provides the fungus some of its carbohydrates and in return the fungus increases the plant's absorption of water and essential minerals, which helps the plant to grow. It's a win-win situation.
Interested in learning more about mushrooms? We can suggest a number of excellent books on the subject - click here.