Mushrooms: Delicious and Ecologically Important!

Mushrooms - arguably the most important organism to a healthy ecosystem yet easily overlooked. All I knew about mushrooms before reading Paul Stamets’ book "Mycelium Running" was that they were a great topping for pizzas and had a nice chewy texture in my omelets. However, mushrooms are much more important than just food for us. In fact, what we eat is not even the main part of the mushroom!

Some oyster mushrooms grown by SHFP in past years!

Some oyster mushrooms grown by SHFP in past years!

A complex network of single cell width ‘roots’ underground called mycelium are the actual body of the mushroom. Mycelial mats, the entire network of one organism, can stretch for acres! The largest mushroom ever recorded measures 2,384 acres in Oregon’s Blue Mountains. Mycelium excrete enzymes and acids to break down molecules from dead plants into smaller molecules they can absorb as food. These nutrients could not be processed by any other organism and they would be locked out of the ecosystem if it were not for fungi. Hence their title as ‘nature’s recyclers’.  Not only is mycelium how the mushroom feeds, but it is also crucial to nutrient transport in soil among plants, water filtration, soil remediation, soil structure and more!

So what about the fruiting body of the mushroom we all know and love? When conditions are right, mycelial cells start to clump together to form a baby mushroom that will grow and mature in a matter of days. Most mushrooms have a stem and cap with gills on the underside of the cap. However there are some mushrooms that grow in thin disks like Turkey Tail and others can look like a large clumped bouquet of popcorn like cauliflower mushrooms. Gills on the underside of the mushroom, the hymenium, house special structures called basidia which shoot out spores at a force 10,000 the times astronauts experience getting into orbit! Once the spores find a suitable environment they start to grow strands called hypha that will need to meet with another compatible hypha to fuse and create a new mycelial network.

That’s some basic information about mushrooms but we have only scratched the surface. Stay tuned for more about mushrooms in our later blogs and for more information on the mushrooms we at South Hill Forest Products are growing for sale!