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What are mushrooms?

According to Wikipedia, a mushroom is the fleshy, spore-bearing fruiting body of a fungus, typically produced above ground, on soil, or on its food source – the substrate. 

Mushrooms are merely the fruit of a predominantly underground organism – which we call fungi. The living body of the fungi is mycelium made out of a web of tiny filaments called hyphae. Dependent on the fungi size, these hyphae can grow over one km of total length in a day.

Mushroom life cycle

Mushrooms reproduce through microscopic spores which they produce on their gills. When these “mushroom seeds” land on a suitable substrate and if the conditions are right, they will grow mycelium and form an underground network. After that, the fungi waits for the perfect temperature and air moisture to make a fruit body above the ground – the mushroom which will produce more spores as it matures.

The fungi family

Mushrooms belong in a kingdom of their own, the fungi family, separate from plants and animals. 

Fungi are different from plants and animals in the way they obtain their nutrients. While plants make their food using the sun's energy (photosynthesis), animals eat and then internally digest food. Fungi are completely different: the mycelium grows into or around the food source, secretes enzymes that digest the food externally, and the mycelium then absorbs the digested nutrients.

Mushrooms categories

Based on how they get their food, mushrooms are placed in these three general categories:

  1. Saprophytes grow on dead organic matter such as fallen leaves, plants and dead wood. These decomposers recycle carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and minerals from it and make nutrients available for living plants, insects and organisms. This category includes many gourmet and medicinal types of mushrooms such as shiitake, reishi and oyster mushrooms.
  2. Parasites grow on living trees and plants, extracting their nutrients and endangering the host’s health. Once the host has died, the dead matter is decomposed by the saprophytes. Most parasitic fungi are micro fungi, which are barely visible to the naked eye. Sometimes we can recognize them as stains or burns on tree leaves. 
  1. Mycorrizal mushrooms form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of living trees. They increase sugar and nutrient intake and boost up tree’s digestion. The mycelium structure also grows beyond the roots structure bringing distant nutrients and moisture to the living plant. Most known representatives in this category are porcini mushrooms, chanterelles and truffles.

Nature’s internet

By decomposing matter, fungi grow and create mycological membranes that support ecological habitats in many ways.

The interlacing mycelium filaments create a vast network that reacts to changes and shares information with its environment (water, soil, plants and trees) which is why it is referred to as Nature’s internet. Mycelium network makes sure that essential nutrients flow efficiently through the whole food chain, and that makes fungi an essential part of the whole ecosystem.

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