Mushrooms are magical. Not only are they tasty when eaten (or deadly if you pick the wrong ones) but they can also have a range of health benefits and provide an intense high if you are so inclined.
But despite us seeing shrooms every day on our supermarket shelves or even growing wild in our gardens, how many of us know how a mushroom comes into being or what it does during its lifecycle? Not many, I’m sure. So, for the benefits of education and entertainment, here is a brief guide on the lifecycle of a mushroom. Enjoy.
What is a mushroom?
For real? You actually don’t know what one is? I’m joshing with you. Or am I… We all know what a mushroom looks like and most of us know how the ones in the supermarket taste (some of us even know how certain species can make you feel magic) but not many of us understand what a mushroom is.
First and foremost, a mushroom is not a plant. It may grow in soil and it needs water and a degree of light to grow but it is certainly not the same as the dahlias growing in your garden. In fact a mushroom is more closely related to animals than it is the pretty pink flowers in the landscaping.
A mushroom is a fungi, a very special variety of fauna that while sometimes looking and acting like a plant, is altogether something more.
Each mushroom is made up of a stem and cap that make up its body (or fruit). These are generally the part we harvest and eat as well as the part containing the spores required to create more mushrooms. But more on that later.
A mushroom will also have a root system that for some species can spread for many hundreds of square miles under the ground. Sometimes the root and body can both be large making certain species among the largest living creatures on the planet.
Another difference between mushrooms and plants is the way they ‘feed’. Most plants metabolise water from the soil with sunlight and carbon dioxide to gain all the nutrients they need to survive. Fungi work very differently and lack the required chlorophyll to photosynthesise. Instead they obtain nutrients from ‘eating’ dead organic matter, usually in the form of other plants. That’s not to say they are zombies (although a shroom filled Walking Dead spinoff would undoubtedly be cool). They just need a bit of rotting matter to thrive (this is why you find them growing mostly on manure, dung, and rotting wood).
So, how do mushrooms grow?
All plants and animals grow through something called cell division – that is they produce more cells to get bigger. While the mushroom body also grows using cell division, the fruit (the part we eat) always has the same number of cells and increases its size by making cells LARGER. This allows mushrooms to grow much more rapidly than the slow and energy consuming cell dividing of plants. In fact, mushrooms will grow just as quickly as water can be absorbed and ‘pumped’ into cells, giving the appearance sometimes that they have ‘sprouted up’ overnight.
Mushroom growing is thirsty work
One of the key requirements for mushrooms to grow is water. This requirement is necessitated by the fact that they have no skin to retain moisture. It is also the reason they prefer humid areas to grow. If the humidity is low, mushroom cells will lose moisture faster than it can be absorbed and will wither away and die. If you plan to grow mushrooms for yourself it is essential that the air around them is kept as moist as possible.
So, submerge them, right?
No. Mushrooms still need to breathe and although they don’t have lungs like we do, they will exchange essential gasses directly with the air around them. Too much water will prevent this from happening and in essence they will drown.
What about temperature?
Mushrooms lack thermal regulation and cannot maintain their body temperature (a bit like a lizard or other cold-blooded animal). Because of this, mushrooms grow faster in warmer climates than they do in colder ones. You will find that under the right heat they will grow incredibly fast but if the temperature gets too cold or too hot, they may never develop beyond the ‘pinhead’ stage and may even wither away and die.
How do mushrooms reproduce?
The mycelia of a mushroom that is rooted in the ground or rotting matter is the actual fungi organism. The sprouting part that pokes up (and we eat) is the fruiting body created primarily to procreate by spreading something called spores.
Unlike other plants, mushrooms don’t produce seeds. Instead they create spores that are sown into the surrounding habitat to create more mushrooms.
What exactly are mushroom spores?
Spores are microscopic (only 1/2500-inch long), reproductive cells that allow mushrooms and other fungi to procreate and grow. They are found on the underside of the mushroom fruit (or cap as it is known) inside the teeth, gills, or pores of the fungus. These teeth, gills, and pores form the main reproduction (or in the case of mushrooms replication) part of the fungi and are so called because of their shape and similarity to parts of other animals.
Each healthy mushroom will contain millions of spores that when the time is right, and the correct level of maturity has been met, will be dispersed to spread over a wide area to create more fungi. The reason so many spores are required is that the circumstances for successful germination are incredibly rare and the vast majority will fail to succeed in their purpose. Their general small size also makes it easy for them to carry over large distances to increase the chances that germination will occur.
A spore is basically a smaller version of the parent mushroom and is in a way a replication of it. As such the spore has everything it needs to germinate out of the gate and if the right conditions are met will grow into another mushroom relatively easily.
What conditions lead to successful germination?
Like fruit trees, mushrooms will only produce spores when specific criteria are met. A fruit tree will generally only sprout fruit in the correct season and with the correct conditions. Mushrooms work in a similar way and won’t generate spores until the environment contains enough nutrients and water they require. This is a key thing to remember if you plan to grow mushrooms and creating the right environment for spore creation is vital to have a successful crop.
So, where are all the single mushrooms at?
Mushrooms do not prescribe to the common notion of reproduction we have from viewing other animals and plants. In fact, they are perfectly capable of creating offspring (if you can call them that) asexually; that is without the input of any other organism. They do this by creating and then spreading spores into the surrounding area. As spores require no other stimuli and develop completely asexually within the fungi, mushrooms can replicate incredibly easily in the right conditions.
But asexual reproduction isn’t the only way a mushroom can replicate itself and sometimes two different hyphae (that is the part of the mushroom generally found underground - a bit like the roots of plant) can fuse together. This fusion can allow the creation of more spores to be dispersed.
Spore Prints: the art of identifying mushrooms
Eating the wrong type of wild mushroom is a one-way ticket to sickness and maybe even death. And with so many different shrooms looking virtually identical, identifying the ones we can eat is no easy feat.
But there is a way to know if the mushroom you’ve found is either a) tasty or b) ‘magic’ and this includes taking a closer look at its spores; or more specifically the print they create.
A spore print is a technique used by many mushroom enthusiasts to identify the type of mushroom they come across. Each mushroom will make its own definite pattern that will be unique in terms of shape and colour.
To make a spore print you need to harvest the mushroom cap and place it gill, teeth, or pore side down on a pice of plastic wrap or white paper (paper is generally better as the pattern will be clearer to see). A bowl is then placed over the mushroom and left overnight so the millions of spores it has stored can be dispersed. When you return to the paper or wrap in the morning, you’ll find that the spores have created a pattern unique for that type of mushroom. By using a reliable fungus guide you can then match the pattern to a species of mushroom.
Mushrooms are amazing things, and their lifecycle is unique in the animal and plant kingdom. I hope you enjoyed our brief guide. Take a look around our website for other fun mushroom related facts and articles.