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DELICATE DEFINITION-BREAKING DECOMPOSERS


The mushrooms were covering an old stump in their backyard. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

This past week we received a call from some friends who had a nature story to share with us–they had discovered an entire stump full of mushrooms just outside their home! The mushrooms were crowded together, varying in size and stages of growth. While their tan color wasn’t particularly impressive, their sheer number and clustering was fascinating. Seemingly overnight these brown umbrellas had popped up for the world to see.

While mushrooms appear to pop up out of thin air, they actually have really unique ways of becoming a full grown mushroom. Many mushrooms start out underground and pop to the surface only after the “fleshy-fruiting body” is fully developed from the spore. That sounds like a lot of scientific mumbo jumbo, so what exactly is a mushroom and how do they work?

First we will have to break it down a bit, a mushroom is a fungus. That means a mushroom is neither a plant nor an animal–it is it’s own unique creature. Scientists commonly describe mushrooms as being composed of a “fleshy body” that spreads spores. What that essentially means is that the mushroom is capable of making more mushrooms without another mushroom (spores = baby mushrooms or mushroom “seeds” if you will).

Breaking it down even further—the term mushroom is incredibly vague and is composed of a huge variety of organisms of all shapes and sizes. Not only are there different groups of mushrooms but mushrooms may be different across the globe! The biodiversity is amazing. The most simplified way of looking at a mushroom is to divide it into three main parts. Mushrooms have a stem, a cap (the top of the mushroom) and gills (the underside of the mushroom–which looks like fish gills).


Mushroom mat decoration from Hungary. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

Now that we know what a mushroom “is” why should we care? What role do mushrooms play in our lives? What role do mushrooms play in the world around us? For humans, mushrooms can be used in numerous ways, some mushrooms are edible, others are used for medicines, and still others are used for dyeing textiles.


Mushrooms are very versatile and not only

Mushrooms can be used in many ways like this traditional Hungarian Mushroom Hat. Photo Credit: Sandor Havasi

break the mold of plant and animal–they break down toxins and dead material in our environment. Mushrooms are known as decomposers and play an important role in the health of the local ecosystem. Some mushrooms are parasites in that they appear attached to the bark of a tree and if left indefinitely can kill the host tree. These can be removed and in some countries are crafted into decorative mats, hats, and purses. 

So next time you see a mushroom. . . take a closer look and maybe snap a quick photo of this “definition-breaking,” “possible-tasty-food making,” “one-of-a-kind” fungi!



Curious to know more?

Check out all the California Mushroom Biodiversity

Basic guide of Mushroom Scientific Groups

Different types of Edible Mushrooms

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The Havasi Wilderness Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to heightening awareness and appreciation of the natural environment.

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