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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". Mushrooms are also unique within the Fungal Kingdom itself, because they produce the complex fruiting body which we all know as 'The Mushroom', all of the mushrooms are placed in a division called 'Eumycota' meaning 'The True Fungi'.

The True Fungi are what we all know as mushrooms. They are divided into other groups depending on the structure of their fruiting bodies and various other macro and microscopic characteristics.

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The two major groups of Eumycota are Basidiomycetes and Ascomycetes.

A brief description of each is provided on their individual pages, and for an overview of how the division Eumycota is broken down see the Classification page.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.

Therefore, the mushroom is the reproductive organ for the fungus.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.

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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.

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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.

If you want to learn more about this, take a look at a mushroom life cycle.

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.

The above described mushrooms are called 'Saprophytic Fungi' due to their feeding habits.

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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.

For the above reasons, I believe that mushrooms play a vital role in nature, even if it is in the background where we don't see it.

Why don't we see it? Because we just don't I did not see it till I started looking and that's when I found that there are mushrooms everywhere, in places I have been a hundred times and believe me, some of them are worth seeing.

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.