While the drought-stricken southwestern United States is no-doubt jealous of our abundant precipitation, I’m not so thrilled with it. All that rain has made my weedy lawn grow so fast that I can’t mow it fast enough. It has also accelerated roadway runoff into local water bodies, increasing levels of pollutants in ponds and streams and leading to more algae blooms than usual.
On the other hand, the rain has made it a banner year for mushrooms. During a five-minute walk around my yard last month, I counted more than 90 mushrooms of 11 different species. While I admit that I don't know a great deal about mushrooms, I know enough not to pick and eat any of them, since
|Chestnut bolete (Todd McLeish)|
I just love how some mushrooms look like coral and others like mounds of jelly; some are round puffballs and others like tiny parasols; some look like giant pancakes while others remind me of tree rings. In my yard alone, I’ve seen them in red, purple, yellow, white, brown and orange. And some even have bioluminescent qualities. Shine a black light around your yard at night and some of your mushrooms will probably glow in the dark.
Strangely enough, those biology lessons in high school that probably instructed you that every living thing is either a plant or animal were wrong. Mushrooms don’t fall into either category. They belong to their own kingdom because, among other reasons, they differ from plants and animals in the way that they obtain their nutrients. Unlike plants, which use photosynthesis, and animals, which consume their food internally, mushrooms grow into and around their food source and digest it externally.
The mushroom we see at the surface is only a tiny part of the entire organism, however. Simply put, the mushroom is the reproductive part of a fungi, sort of like the fruit of a plant. Once the mushroom distributes its spores, it melts away, but the rest of the fungal organism lives on, often for many years.
Here’s another high school biology lesson that wasn’t entirely accurate – trees in the forest don’t actually take up water and nutrients through their roots. The underground part of mushrooms is responsible for that job. Healthy forests are dependent on hundreds of thousands of miles of fungal threads called hyphae to gather water and nutrients and supply it to the tree’s roots. (Some scientists say that these hyphae make up 90 percent of the life living in our soils.) In return, the trees give the fungus sugars they produce in their leaves. Without this symbiotic relationship – called mycorrhizae – our forests would cease to exist as we know them.
But that’s not all we get from mushrooms and fungi. They are an important source of pharmaceutical compounds, too, and they have the unique ability to penetrate hard wood and biodegrade it. Yeast fungi also play a key role in the production of bread and wine, which puts them high on my list of the world’s most important organisms.
All this, and mushrooms taste good, too. I only wish we didn’t have to get flooded out of our homes to see so many of them.
This article first appeared in the Independent on Aug. 14, 2021.