By Susan Thurn,
Cable Natural History Museum
Our recent rain has been a mushroom lover’s delight. With so little rain the past few years, mushrooms seemed almost scarce in comparison. Now, when we walk through the woods we are greeted with a rainbow of colors, shapes, and sizes of amazing mushrooms. Of course they are of interest for their delectable tastes, and receive attention because of their additional ability to make those that eat the wrong mushroom extremely ill! Maybe we are more accustomed to noticing them when they are on our plate, or growing in our refrigerators. Still, they are worth our attention as we explore outdoors.
Mushrooms belong to the fungi kingdom. They cannot photosynthesize so must feed mostly on organic material. Their amazing success in reproduction is through spores, which is one reason we can find them almost anywhere. They are made up of microscopic root-like threads called hyphae. Their cell walls are made of chitin, the same material making up the shell of a crab, lobster, or dragonfly. Unlike humans who ingest their food and then digest it, a fungus digests its food first with the use of exoenzymes and then digests it with their hyphae. Because they do not need light for photosynthesis, they can live in any dark habitat, and grow in any direction. Their fruiting body used for reproduction is what we call mushrooms. Some scientists believe that molecular evidence leads to fungus being more closely related to animals then plants!
Because fungi feed on organic material, they are important in recycling nitrogen, carbon, and other nutrients. Some fungi are parasitic, feeding off of living materials and harming them in some way. Others live in beneficial relationships. Mycorrizae assist their host plants by helping the plant to capture water and elements from the soil such as zinc, phosphorus, and manganese, transferring them into the plant's roots. This fungi also protects trees against attack from pathogens. In return, the fungal partner receives from its host plant the vitamins, carbohydrates, and amino acids essential for its growth.
Fungi are much more than just the mold growing on our foods. They can break down almost every manufactured good except for some pesticides and plastics. They have been found to play a role in protecting plants in soils with high metal concentrations. They make fabulous bread and many other food products, including cheese. They are critical in antibiotics, steroids, and hormones. They even are the citric acid in our Cola! Finally, there are 250 species that are sought after food from the forest, while at the same time around the same number can be deadly or make you wish you were dead if you eat them. Mushrooms are certainly a part of our natural world that are “fun-guys” to have around.
For over 42 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility and new exhibit, On Lake Owen: The Art of Walter Bohl, in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. Also find us on the web at www.cablemuseum.org to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Post your own stories on the Nature Watch blog at cablemuseumnaturewatch.blogspot.com.