Out and About: A fungus among us!

The mushrooms on the slice of pizza given to me covered the hot, oozing cheese and tomato sauce like a blanket covering a bed. They may not have looked very appetizing, but the flavor they produced was delicious! I really enjoy a good serving of mushrooms, whether on a slice of pizza, mixed in a fresh salad or stuffed with crab meat-yum, yum!

Mushrooms are a type of fungi. They’re not classified as plants. The major difference between them is that plants can make their own food, fungi cannot. Plants use sunlight, carbon dioxide and water and to produce their food. Fungi feed off decomposing matter, or act as a parasite to a host. The other difference is that fungi reproduce from spores, whereas plants reproduce through seeds and pollen. Plants produce biomass, but without fungi around to decompose it, all that biomass would build up over time-literally piling up all over our planet! Other types of fungi include molds and yeasts.

When it comes to mushrooms, however, they’re generally referred to as a type of fungus that has a fleshy body comprised of a stem, a cap, and gills (on the underside of the cap). Approximately 14,000 species have been identified by scientists throughout the world. Even the word mushroom itself has become part of our everyday English language, being used to describe something that as “mushroomed, or “expanded.” Most likely this is due to the notion of how mushrooms tend to grow very quickly or even “pop up overnight.”

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Mushrooms grow wild and are commercially grown as well. They’re big business, with over 800 million pounds of mushrooms produced commercially in 2010-11, and total sales reaching $1.1 billion (American Mushroom Institute). Leading the way is Pennsylvania. Our Keystone State produces the largest amount of Agaricus (edible varieties) mushrooms in the U.S. (approx. 65%), with most of them coming from Chester County.

There are many species of wild mushrooms, from the common puffballs, false turkey tails, and morels, to the rare “hon-shimeji” (Lyophyllum shimeji), a Japanese species that only grows in a few protected places, and has been known to sell for as much as $450 per pound. Identifying edible wild mushrooms can be tricky, since many look-a-like species are poisonous. Even experienced mycologists (biologists who study fungi) sometimes have difficulty distinguishing certain species. When it comes to edible wild mushrooms, the rule of thumb is “when in doubt, leave it out” (of your mouth), or at least until you can get some assistance in properly identifying the species as non-poisonous. But it’s those same nasty mushrooms that legends and stories have evolved.

As early as the 1400’s, the term “toadstool” was used to describe poisonous mushrooms. The classic example is the Amanita muscaria, or sometimes known as the fly amanita. With its white stem, reddish cap with white dots, it’s become one of the most recognizable mushrooms in the world. The word “toadstool” comes from German folklore and fairy tales of toads, symbols of poison, sitting on top of mushrooms catching flies. It literally meant a stool for a toad! Today, mushrooms are consumed for many reasons, including flavor and nutrition, medicinal purposes and even hallucinogenic.

Although you may not be a fan of fungi, their role in our natural world is very important, and the consumption of mushrooms worldwide continues to grow. So remember, the next time you take a walk in the woods, or even in the vegetable aisle of your local grocery store, there are “fungus among us!”