WHAT ARE FUNGI?
"Any of a group of spore-producing organisms feeding on organic matter, including moulds, yeast, mushrooms, and toadstools." Noun: Fungus. Plural noun: Fungi.
Fungi are much more than just colourful curiosities to be admired on the woodland floor or a tree stump. In nature they are ubiquitous, and in environmental terms their importance cannot be over stated. Amongst other things, they aid the growth of trees and are vital agents of decay and in the recycling of nutrients. Furthermore they touch our lives in many profound and intimate ways that many people are completely unaware of. From yeast in bread, beer and wine to the mould that provides penicillin and other drugs. Without fungi, life on earth as we know it would not exist.
There are about 4,000 fungi in Britain which produce fruit bodies like mushrooms and toadstools, with a stem and a cap. The majority don’t look like this. Mushrooms can come with gills, pores or even spines. Other types of fungi include crusts, brackets, puffballs, earthballs, earthstars, rusts and smuts among many others. The fruit body arises from the mycelium which is the live growing part of the fungus.
These are like microscopic seeds which act as the means of reproduction. Usually, they are released into the air and land on similar substrates to produce a new fungus.
Also known as the stipe, this supports the mushroom's cap, and may or may not have a ring around it.
GILLS & PORES
Also called lamellae, gills are the spore-producing part. Some mushrooms have pores instead of gills, and these fulfil the same function.
MYCELIUM & HYPHAE
Hyphae, collectively known as mycelium, are the minute threads which make up the body of the organism. They reside in soil, wood and many other substrates. Through the mycelium, a fungus absorbs nutrients from its environment. Fungi have no internal organs or central nervous system.
Some mushrooms are enclosed in a membrane which ruptures as it grows. Remnants of this can often be found on the stem or on the cap.
A membrane often covers the gills of an immature mushroom, similar to the volva, remnants can be found under the cap.
The part which houses and protects the gills. Its shape, colour and texture are important features in identification. It's usually the first thing you spot.
For those who wish to take the study of fungi further, and are interested in making an identification of what you find, some useful notes taking you through the process can be seen here.
Fungi are neither plant nor animal - they are in a kingdom of their own
Fungi contain no chlorophyll so obtain their nutrients from dead or living matter
The mycelium can live for several hundred years
The largest living organism on the planet is a fungus
Fungi allow trees to “talk” to each other - known as the Wood Wide Web
Some fungi are parasitised by other fungi
Some fungi parasitise living insects.
Modern medicine depend on fungi
Special types of fungi are used to clean up oil spills
Gromalin, a by-product from mycorrhizal fungi, can capture and store carbon in the soil
Fungi are a critical lynchpin in virtually every ecosystem
There are approximately 15,000 species of fungi in the British Isles (maybe more!)
Some fungi can only be truly identified by chemical testing, spore examination or DNA sequencing