"The humblest fungus displays a life akin to our own."— Henry David Thoreau
Fungi. Even the name sounds yucky. They can cause our foods to spoil, may cause uncontrollably itchy rashes on our skin and—make a mistake and eat the wrong one— and it's major GI issues or even death for the unlucky.
But of course, that's not all there is to know about fungi. In fact, we hardly know much about them at all. We’ve only named around 5 to 10% of them.
Guaranteed that once your child begins to learn about these fascinating organisms, they will be hooked. Amazingly diverse, seamlessly adapted and continually surprising us as we learn more about them there's just something about fungi.
Take a tour of a few fungi that are sure to pique the curiosity of any child (or adult):
Jack-o-Lantern or foxfire fungi are bioluminescent and give off a glow in the dark. The reason is that they manufacture a pigment called luciferin, which gives off light when it is oxidized. It could be because they are trying to attract night-flying insects to spread their spores. These famous fungi are even mentioned in the novel, Huckleberry Finn.
Dead Man’s Fingers
The fruiting body of this fungus comes up through the surface like charred, wrinkled arthritic fingers. Hence, their name!
Believe it or not, this deadly fungus that affects rye and other cereals cause black elongated fruiting bodies in the ears of the cereal. The fungus is responsible for the deaths of 10,000 people in Russia in 1926. And some suspect that the eating of ergot on rye may have caused the 1692 Salem witch frenzy.
If you've spent much time in cemeteries you may have noticed large numbers of mushrooms growing there. These so-called cemetery mushrooms are not feeding on human remains. They are using the copious amount of nitrogen, ammonia in the coil released as the bodies decompose.
Responsible for 90% of all fungal fatalities, a single Death Cap could kill four people. This is an off-white greenish-yellow mushroom with a ring, a bulb at the base with a sickly sweet odor. Read more about how to identify the Death Cap here.
Bird’s nest fungi
Bird’s nest fungi look like miniature bird’s nests with a clutch of even more miniature eggs inside. Each of these eggs is actually a packet of spores called a peridiole. Raindrops shatter the thin tissue, sending the peridioles through the air.
Fairy rings are places of magic and mystery but there's a very scientific explanation. The rings are caused by outward-growing mycelium of a fungus that depletes the soil of its nutrients, creating a dead zone in the center. Purple-spored puffballs can form fairy rings that survive for 400 years or more. There is one ring at Stonehenge that is estimated to be 10,000 years old.
The Bonnet Mold is a wild-looking fungus that got its name because it looks like it has a punk haircut. Its "look" is due to aerial filaments that provide its host’s cap with a bonnet. Spores are found at the end of the filaments and are dispersed by insects a well as the wind.
Don't be deceived. The caterpillar fungus is not just a fungus. It is actually a fungus and an insect combined in one, sadly sacrificing the caterpillar along the way. The spores of the fungus penetrate the cuticle of a hibernating ghost moth caterpillar, digesting the caterpillar’s vital parts. Soon a fruiting body arises from the host. The Caterpillar Fungus has many uses in Chinese medicine and can be quite expensive. It is arvested in the Himalayas,
Chytrids are a type of fungus that has been blamed for the extinction of frogs in the tropics. The fungus digests the frog's keratin, which is a vital and protective part of an amphibian’s skin tissue, causing it to peel away. The effect of the fungus is especially difficult for amphibians since they breathe through their skin.
Dutch Elm Disease
This parasitic, elm-infecting fungus is carried by the elm bark beetle and is incredibly destructive. The fungus forces the xylem of infected trees to plug up its cells so the trees can’t conduct water to their leaves. Over 40 million American elm trees have been killed by this disease, and today it is still a very destructive disease of shade trees in the U.S.
Most popular fungi? Certainly, the Fly Agaric is the most photographed of all fungi with its red cap with white specks. The iconic mushroom has been featured in everything from Super Mario to Fantasia and Alice in Wonderland.
Jellies are gelatinous yellow, brown and reddish fungi that have been accompanied by creative explanations for their existence in different cultures.. In Sweden, they were once believed to be vomited up by the cats of witches. And Canadian Inuit thought they were the snot of caribou.
Matsutakes are large white mushrooms with reddish-brown flattened scales on their cap, a veil and a tapering stalk with a thick cottony ring near the top. Matsutakes can be detected by their strong odor, a blend of red hots and old gym socks as one mycologist described it. Revered in the Japanese culture traditionally, they were once considered so sacred in the Japanese imperial court the women were prohibited from saying their name.
An extremely large and extremely rare polypore (a group of fungi that form large fruiting bodies with pores or tubes on the underside). One species of Noble Polypore in China had a fruiting body that was 34 feet long and weighed 800 pounds!
Oyster mushrooms are a common edible mushroom that is now grown commercially around the world for food. However, it is one of the few known carnivorous mushrooms and will eat roundworms for its source of nitrogen. The fungi secrete toxic droplets that paralyze the worm and then digests the nitrogen-rich snack from within.
Puffballs manufacture their spores in their stomach area and so when a raindrop punctures their outer covering, it forces a cloud-like release of spores. Such clouds made early taxonomists think of flatulence— hence genus names such as “wolf fart and "ox fart”. The giant puffball will produce trillions of spores in the course of its lifetime. A component of its cell walls bonds with red blood cells and creates a gel-like clot that stops bleeding.
Fungus, plural fungi, is any of about 144,000 known species of organisms of the kingdom Fungi, which includes the yeasts, rusts, smuts, mildews, molds, and mushrooms. Fungi range from microscopic to the gigantic specimen weighing in at nearly one thousand pounds.
Mycology is the study of fungi. It is new. In fact, fungi were just separated out from plants in 1969! It's own Kingdom in the classification system, fungi aren’t plants, animals, or bacteria.
What do they do?
Fungi are important organisms that serve many vital functions in forest ecosystems including decomposition, nutrient cycling, symbiotic relationships with trees and other plants, biological control of other fungi, as well as cause diseases in plants and animals.
Approximately 90% of all vascular land plants live in some association with fungi. By colonizing the root system of a plant, fungi increase water and nutrient absorption capabilities for the plant. The fungus, in turn, receives carbohydrates from the plant from photosynthesis.
What are mushrooms?
A mushroom or toadstool is the fleshy, spore-bearing fruiting body of a fungus, typically produced above ground, on soil, or on its food source. Mushrooms are sources of food for wildlife and fungi that cause decay in living trees are beneficial to many species of birds and mammals.
Mushrooms can have gills or thin, papery structures that hang vertically under the cap, or not. The purpose of gills, also called lamellae, is to produce spores. The spores are then dropped from the gills by the millions where they are scattered by wind currents.
Mushrooms that do not have gills will either produce spores using pores that look like small holes on the underside of the cap or else by teeth, which are also called spines (we told you fungi are funky!). Tooth fungi have long, thin "teeth" that hang downward and produce spores.
Most of the mass of the mushroom, or the biomass, is a largely unseen mass of interwoven threadlike hyphae growing in plant tissues and in the soil. These tiny rootlets attach to the soil or decaying wood provides the food for a mushroom.
Where can you find fungi?
They are found all over, including on our bodies and on the bodies of many organisms. Mushrooms can grow almost anywhere, but love to grow in damp, dark and murky places best. Look for them on old or fallen trees in the woods, in shady soil or even in damp spots at the bottom of a garden.
Are they safe?
Some kinds of fungi are completely safe and delicious when cooked. But others can be extremely poisonous to humans and animals. You don’t get names like Death Cap, Destroying Angel and Funeral Bell for being the friendliest mushroom in the forest.
Always be careful when mushroom hunting! Many mushrooms are poisonous, hallucinogenic, or medicinal. Misidentified mushrooms can make you or your child sick or kill you. Misinformation and misidentification by amateurs is prevalent on the internet. Do not rely on photos you find online. Do not eat mushrooms unless you are 100% certain that they are edible (read: not poisonous). If you have any doubts, ask an expert. You might be able to find one through your local mycological society.
How to help fungi
If you want to foster the growth of fungi in your backyard, leave out logs and branches and let them rot in a damp, shady corner of your yard. Insects will appreciate it as will plants.
Funky Fungi Facts
Beer, soy sauce & tempeh are made by fermentation with fungi.
Mushrooms can have a wide range of smells including coconut, a female pig, anise, peaches, cooked crab, raw potato, bleach, geraniums, and many others.
Some fungi are cannibals
The fur of the sloth is a rich substrate for fungi. A sloth's hairs have grooves that serve as hydrophilic gardens for fungi. One researcher found as many as 84 different fungal species in the fur of three-teeth sloths in Panama.
Fungi can remove toxic substances from unhealthy habitats, making them healthy again. Oyster mushrooms have degraded the toxins in crude oil and cleaned up diesel-contaminated soil. The crust fungus has broken down DDT pesticide residues. Several fungus species consume leftover radiation at Chernobyl in Ukraine
The percentage of fungi named.
Up to 95% of trees have fungus cohabitating.