Fungi, Nature’s recyclers

Story and photos by Scot Stewart

“Nature doth thus kindly heal every wound. By the mediation of a thousand little mosses and fungi, the most unsightly objects become radiant of beauty. There seem to be two sides of this world, presented us at different times, as we see things in growth or dissolution, in life or death. And seen with the eye of the poet, … all things are alive and beautiful.”                                          —Henry David Thoreau

Recycling has become a regular part of life for many. It has become a way to reduce the materials going to quickly filling landfills, puts valuable resources back in to new products, can cut back on energy consumption and can be a part of a less consumptive, more sensible lifestyle. It seems like a great invention in thought, but it is just another stolen idea, taken from the lives of fungi.

Fungi need no direct energy from the sun. In fact, they rather like rather like the darkness. They generally produce small amounts of new biomass, with parts of it decaying rapidly, and only occasionally use resources “in demand” by other organisms. They often take organic material from dead plants and animals and turn it into nutrients for themselves, and new organic bi-products available for use by other organisms. Along with bacteria, they are among the original recyclers.

No one really knows how many fungi there are, but estimates range upward to 5.1 million worldwide. Mycologists (scientists studying fungi) don’t really know how many there actually are in part to their general nature and their habitat. There are three main groups—molds, mildews and mushrooms.

Molds have been given a bad name by the varieties famous for making an appearance after household items become damp. The hurricanes in Texas, Puerto Rico and Florida have brought all kinds of wet to homes there, forcing homeowners to strip down walls, rip out carpeting and toss furniture and other belongings. Contact with these molds can cause a variety of human health problems.

But there is another, more benevolent side to molds. One group in particular, in the genus Penicillium, is known for a number of beneficial reasons. One is used in cheese making. Bleu, Roquefort, gorgonzola, camembert and brie cheese all use penicillium molds in their production. The mold helps the cheeses develop their distinctive flavors, and in the case of the bleu, its colorful streaks as well. When brie cheese is made, the new rind is sprayed with a solution containing mold to protect it from bacteria.

And that brings around a second valuable use for mold—antibiotics. In 1928, Alexander Fleming, a physician, biologist and pharmacologist, discovered a mold had killed bacteria left in a research petri dish. This discovery led to the development of penicillin, an important antibiotic still used in a variety of forms today.

Yeasts are also fungi. They are single-celled and commonly used in the making of bread, beer and other foods. When fed simple sugars, yeasts produce carbon dioxide and alcohol. The gas produces air pockets in dough, making it rise. When fed sugar over a longer period it can produce carbonation and a higher alcohol content in beer.

Mildews are another group of fungi, but unfortunately the group comes with few fans. Many gardeners are familiar with powdery mildew—the kind found on squash, pumpkin and other vegetable leaves—turning them a dusty white before killing them. Downy mildew is another group familiar because they attack leaves. Indoor mildews are found in bathrooms and around tubs, as well as in damp spaces like basements, where they often attack books and other materials, discoloring them and giving that nasty, musty odor.

“Why did the mushroom get invited to all the parties? Because he was a fun-gi.” — Unknown

That brings up the third kind of fungi. At least 10,000 species of mushrooms are identified in the United States but identifying new species has been a challenge for mycologists. Multicellular fungi are made of thread-like structures called hyphae. The mass of the root-like structures of mushrooms, called mycelium, literally thread through their environment, things like rotting logs and the soil and their food. This is done in relative obscurity, often nearly completely out of view. Between the nature of their tissue and their homes, they usually don’t scream out to be found. The process of finding and identifying new fungi has been a slow and laborious challenge.

The quiet, unseen work of fungi is a most important function in the grand scheme of things. As the hyphae come in contact with their food sources—mostly animal and plant materials—they release enzymes, proteins able to break down complex chemicals into smaller chemicals. They then absorb these nutrients. Along with the help of other decomposers like bacteria; carpenter ants; engraver, wood boring, carrion and rove beetles; vultures; and slime molds, they run nature’s recycling program.

Slime molds are an interesting part of the partnership of decomposing organisms. Sometimes mistaken for fungi, they are more related to amoeba and other protozoans. Many of the varieties in the Upper Peninsula are found on wet, barkless logs, especially in autumn after a period of rainy days. Many are brightly colored like the flat, blotchy looking yellow dog vomit slime mold and the bright pink bubbly looking tooth paste or wolf’s milk slime mold. They are two slime molds frequently seen in the Marquette area.

The work of fungi hyphae helps break down much of the remains of the planet’s organisms once they die and return many simpler compounds back to the soil. The mycelium of mushrooms continue to grow as the organisms age and can gain a prodigious size, big enough to be considered the largest organism in the world. For many years a honey mushroom found near Crystal Falls, in Iron County, Armillaria gallica, was the largest in the world, now estimated at more than 37 acres and a mass of more than 10.5 tons. Several years ago, another species, Amarillia solidipes, growing in Oregon, was measured at 2.2 miles, and is now considered the world’s largest.

Some dispute the current owner’s title as world’s largest because of the way the mushrooms can grow and reproduce. When mycelia grow in the soil, genetically identical pieces can meet and fuse, creating larger fungi of the same genetic identity. While studying a tree die-off in the Malhuer National Forest in Oregon, genetically identical fungi hypha were found connected to dead trees 2.4 miles apart, leading to the realization they were all part of the same fungi and lending the honor of world’s largest organism.

Fungi also reproduce sexually, producing spores. For those spores to spread away from the mother plant, they must be able to reach a place where wind or other agents can carry them away. That leads us to mushrooms.

Mushrooms are much like the flowers and fruits of plants, but produce spores instead. Once a set of mycelium has grown large enough and conditions are just right—consider the early May rains morel hunters wait for—a fungi begins to grow a structure able to project out of its normal habitat, out of the ground, on top of a log, or a similar exposed place. Once above the surface, the mushroom can release up to a billion (that’s with a “b”) spores. While mycologist state the chances of a single spore starting a new fungus are extremely slim, some mushrooms have managed to successfully develop a worldwide range.

The spore-producing structures of fungi have some really great, descriptive names to match their incredibly varied shapes, colors and sizes. Earth stars, bird’s nests, stink horns, puffballs, black trumpets, dead man’s fingers, coral, shaggy manes, comb tooth, turkey tail and eye lash cup are just a few of the names of U.P. fungi.

Locally common mushrooms fall into a number of groups, with gilled mushrooms and boletes being two of the most familiar. They comprise two groups of “toadstools,” mushrooms with caps and stalks. Gilled mushroom caps have slotted undersides, while boletes have undersides with many small holes or pores. Spores are released from the bottom of the caps and are carried off by wind and water.

These are also the types of mushrooms most frequently collected and eaten by mushroom connoisseurs. Fungi have been an important part of the culinary life of mankind since experimentation with them began. While many are choice, edible and delicious, there are many—often incredibly similar looking—that are deadly poisonous.

Ingrid Bartelli once taught a wonderful, insightful and detailed class on mushroom identification in Marquette. She related a story of a well-known mushroom collector from the southern part of Marquette County who found and cooked some wild mushrooms one evening and served them at dinner. Her husband did not have them with her that night. Unfortunately for her, she had mistaken the very poisonous white mushrooms she ate for an edible species and died of liver failure three days later.

It was a sober lesson about how even a fair amount of knowledge can be a dangerous thing. There are some edible mushrooms with some “unmistakable” characteristics that make them difficult to confuse with poisonous ones—morels, puffballs, black trumpets, chanterelles, oyster mushrooms are all delicious local favorites, but experts caution even those should be eaten only after a 100 percent positive identification is made.

With wild mushrooms it is also important to know a little chemistry. Shaggy mane is a common fall mushroom in the U.P. It has a tall, bullet-shaped cap with flaps of tissue hanging from its sides. It is also known as inky cap due to the way it decomposes into drops of inky, black liquid. There is a short window for their edibility. It is an edible mushroom, but can be confused with a similar species that if eaten and an alcoholic beverage is consumed within several hours of them a violent reaction can occur between the alcohol and a chemical in the mushroom, causing nausea, vomiting, light-headedness and rapid heartbeat If not eaten, they can be used to make a gray-green clothing dye.

Although there are field guides in print and online to aid with identification, there are a number of key diagnostics to aid in more complete review of the species’ possibilities and identification. The color of the spores is an important part of identification. Caps can be separated from stalks and set on a piece of paper in an area with no air movement. As spores drop on the paper, a lovely pattern is created when the mushrooms have gills and the color will help with the identity.

Besides spore color, colors of caps and stems, presence of a ring on the stalk called an annulus, presence of gills, and habitat are all features mycologists use to help identify mushrooms, but as stated previously, extreme care should be used when attempting to identify new species.

A variety of animals also eat mushrooms—flies, beetles and slugs will eat them at nearly any stage of the mushroom’s life, and small mammals like squirrels and chipmunks will also nibble on them. Unfortunately, mushrooms evidently safe for them, like Amanitas, are deadly to humans, so those nibble marks are not a sign of a safe mushroom.

Mushroom-lovers hope this fall will be as good as last year for mushrooms. The moist autumn produced one of the best crops of mushrooms many had ever seen in the U.P. Many yards had multiple species, including fairy rings, circles of mushrooms produced at the outer edge of circular fungal growths often found around trees. Some trails in the area, like the one along the Little Garlic River, the Harlow Lake Ski Trail and the Carp River Trail below the ski hill produce great varieties including orange eyelash cups, orange jelly-like cups with eyelash-like structures on their edges, blue-green cups growing on the sides of fallen logs, bright red fading scarlet waxy caps and furry looking wood mushrooms. Also on the Little Garlic Trail last year were black trumpets and chanterelles, both great edible mushrooms.

The sight alone of these colorful and often very unique-looking biological wonders can make for a great adventure in the woods. The collecting and eating though, should be left to the experts. And even they will need to use a wondrous amount of caution, expertise and scientific know-how.


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