They rose up from the ground like golden fingers, grasping the earth of the Northern White Cedar Swamp. Once aware of their presence, I began seeing their relatives everywhere. Black tongues sprouting from stumps, miniature sheets of rolling parchment across a log, raisin-like swellings on branches, delicate feathers and elegant goblets along fallen trees, a smear of blue paint on a stick, a white parasol shading decaying leaves.
How are they alike? They are all mushrooms. Around this time of year, especially after rain, you see them bursting forth from the leaf litter and colonizing fallen logs.
Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies present in some fungi—like the apples of a tree. The fruiting bodies contain spores that produce new fungi, similar to the seeds in fruit. The rest of the fungus, called the mycelium, is often underground. It’s made up of a network of fine filaments, also known as hyphae. These filaments resemble the roots of plants, but unlike roots, hyphae actively digest their surroundings. The mycelium portion of fungus can be massive.
In a single cubic inch of soil, there can be more than eight miles of these cells – around 300 miles of mycelium to a footprint. In fact, the largest living organism is a fungus – a single individual that has colonized an area roughly 2,400 acres in eastern Oregon. That’s 1,665 football fields. Fungi are also powerful; the mushrooms of one fungus, Coprinus comatus, develops with such ferocity that it has been known to break through asphalt. Another fungus, Pilobolus, blasts its spores at a force of 20,000g—more than double the acceleration of a bullet from a vintage rifle.
Fungi aren’t plants – they’re actually more closely related to animals as their cell walls have chitin (a tough substance also found in the exoskeletons of insects and crustaceans). Fungi are decomposers, breaking down plant tissue and other materials. However, many fungi get an extra boost of nutrition through a symbiotic relationship with a host plant. In exchange for a renewable food source, the fungi provide mineral nutrients and water taken up by their incredible surface area. 95% of examined plants obtain nutrients and water through a relationship with fungi. Some fungi are saprophytic, feeding on dead or decaying organic matter in the soil and making room for new growth. Some are parasitic, feeding off of living tissue.
Humans have appreciated mushrooms throughout history. A 5,300 year-old Tyrolean Ice Man, Otzi, was discovered frozen in ice with a satchel of Tinder polypore (Fomes fomentarius), along with Birch polypore (Piptopurus betulinus). Perhaps they were used as a fire starter, or maybe for its antibacterial properties, or possibly to ward off insects or evil spirits.
Today, fungi have a wide range of uses– decomposable packaging, insect extermination, antibiotic production, and contaminant mitigation. In addition, mushroom burial suits have been developed to facilitate the process of human decomposition while cleansing the body of accumulated toxins
Even if you don’t want to be buried with a suit embroidered with spores, there are plenty ways to appreciate fungi. Go out this autumn and relish the myriad of mushroom forms. Contemplate the vastness of mycelium under your feet and how it supports the life growing over your head.
Ellen is a first year student in the Field Naturalist Program.