Forests and the “mushroom underground”

Fall is the best time of year to see many different types of mushrooms and the forest is the best place to find them.

One of the fascinating things about mushrooms is the way they seem to pop up from nowhere. This is just an illusion (like a magic trick). Really, the parent fungus has been producing very tiny and invisible threads that gather nutrients just like the roots of plants do. When the fungus has found enough food to produce a mushroom it does, and that is what we finally see. The truth is that most of the fungus is still invisible under the ground.

Plants produce flowers so they can produce seeds. Fungi produce mushrooms which produce single-celled spores to grow more fungi. Spores are not actually seeds (which have many thousands of cells), but they do the same job by spreading the fungus. The fungal threads in the soil are called hyphae – they are one cell thick and many cells long. They may be in the soil, in rotten wood or growing inside another organism (such as another fungus). You can’t see one single hypha, but you can often see masses of hyphae if you turn over a log or look under the dead leaves and pine needles. The white material you find is called a mycelium – clusters of hyphae busily eating and digesting dead plant leaves or wood.

When the autumn rains arrive, it is time for the fungi to produce a mushroom, often called a ‘fruiting body’. Little buds appear on the mycelium: they expand, absorb water, and grow into mushrooms. There are so many different shapes, sizes and colours one can never stop finding new ones.

But the magic doesn’t stop with the production of mushrooms. The trees have made a deal with the fungi to share their sugar resources in exchange for more water. Fungal hyphae are very good at picking up water as they grow so quickly and their tiny size means they can reach into little spaces where water is held between soil particles even during dry spells. This water often has some dissolved minerals the tree can use so they grow much larger more quickly.

Our world would look very different if trees didn’t have fungal threads helping them out. As part of the deal, the fungi can grow large mushrooms quickly using the sugar they get from the trees.

As you walk the trails, think about what is happening under your feet as the tiny hyphae begin the big job of recycling materials for other plants to use. The invisible ‘Mushroom Underground’ does wonderful work!

By Terry Taylor, adapted by Brian Herrin. Appeared NatureWILD, volume 17, isssue 3, 2016. Image credit: C. McQuillan


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