Fungi, Mushrooms and Toadstools (Oh My!)

Fungi, Mushrooms and Toadstools (Oh My!)

We grimace at them, we hate them and we fear them. But we shouldn’t. We need them.

Fungi, Mushrooms and Toadstools , Without them, nothing would grow. Nutrients wouldn’t be recycled, old vegetation wouldn’t become mulch. There is a whole microcosmos alive beneath your feet, every day in the form of fungal filaments and spores. A world we often take for granted.

Fly agaric in a beech forest, UK.

Before we begin, I would like to stress that this isn’t designed to be a definitive or exhaustive guide to what is edible and what isn’t. While there are ways you can tell, which, we will go into, even a seasoned mushroom forager would still need to double check on occasion, just to make sure! This is more to dispel the myths and fears around our eukaryotic friends, understand them and their role a little better.

So, what are Fungi, Mushrooms and Toadstools?

In the loosest possible terms, mushroom, fungi and Toadstools are all the same thing. Scientifically there isn’t any difference between a mushroom and a toadstool besides the name. Toadstools are 2 generally called as such because they are associated with toxicity, however, regardless of whether a fungi is toxic or not they all produce the fruiting bodies we know as mushrooms and toadstools. Fungi refers to a broad spectrum of organisms that grow in a variety of ways, shapes, forms and places, from slime mold to simple yeasts and everything in between. The filaments are made up of millions of microscopic individuals who work together as one.

Would you believe me if I told you mushrooms are technically, fruit?

But not in the sense like a lemon or a tomato is a fruit. The mushroom itself is simply the fruiting body of the fungi filament that lives permanently in the soil. When conditions are right, usually associated with a season, the filament will produce the fruit for one purpose alone – spores! These spores produce more filament should they land where conditions are good and so the life cycle is complete. Most will use insects or the wind to help with this. One such type that uses insects exclusively is the Stinkhorn (Phallacae), that produces a scent close to rotting flesh, hence the name. This attracts flies which, in turn carry the spores for miles. Its then a complete lottery that it lands somewhere it can thrive.

But, what do they actually do??

Fungi have one of the most important roles for any healthy eco system. In short, they are nature’s recyclers. They take what needs to be taken and produce nutrients so that new plants can thrive. They are vital for soil health. For the most part, the fungi stays hidden away underground. You may see the filament visible on a fallen tree trunk, but this filament is made up of millions of individuals, all working together as one unit. They draw organic compounds from dead or decaying matter, this sustains them. Plants cannot use nitrogen in its natural state, the fungi convert this nitrogen into nitrites and nitrates, a form plants can use. Although there are many of the 15000 UK native types we can’t eat, there are other animals that can, the seasonal bonanza helps them to bulk up for the winter. Without fungi, your soil would be barren, it wouldn’t matter how expensive or fantastic your fertilizer is, there would be nothing there to help the plant use it, rendering it useless. Fungi has a delicate balance within the soil. What it takes, it gives back with interest. But when it is forced to take in an effort to reproduce time and time again, it begins to take more than it can give back. This is why it is never advisable to cut away mushrooms if you can help it. The fruiting body is needed by the soil as much as the filament, it needs its food back to give to something else!

When the microscopic meets the macroscopic,

All fungi has a role to play, even if that role does not involve directly recycling the nutrients. Some fungi exists for what we would deem a sinister purpose, being of the human condition that our entire existence is geared towards survival. But, nature seldom creates life without a role for it to for fill. When we understand that role, we learn to not fear it. Hard to believe that such a tiny organism, often smaller than the eye can see, is capable of both taking and giving life in ways we are only just beginning to understand.

Some fungi exists to keep populations of insects under control for example. Within the Amazon, nearly every insect has a control fungi. These fungi infect the host, growing out of the insect body whereupon it spores, infecting yet more insects. The more abundant the insect number, the more infected. One of nature’s many ways of ensuring no species ever gains advantage over another and overwhelm a shared resource. We have similar here and without those, we would become so overrun they would eat us out of farm and garden!

Jelly ear fungus (Auricularia auricula-judae)

How can I tell if a mushroom is edible or not?

It’s a big question I get asked time and time again and the honest answer is, unless you are an experienced mycologist or have one to hand, there is always a risk. Again, this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of what to look for, but these are some of the basics any beginner should know. First thing you should look at is the gills. These should not be white. Of course, there are exceptions to this such as the chanterelle variety but these types with white gills that are edible are few and far between, almost all white gilled mushrooms are from the Amanita variety and these vary in their levels of toxicity, from something that will give you mild stomach distress to all out hallucinogenic. Chanterelle grow exclusively on tree trunks, anywhere else is a good indicator that it isn’t of an edible variety.

The next is the cap and stem. If there is any redness at all on these, then the mushroom is invariably not safe to eat. Similarly, look for smooth caps. Scaly spots are a major indicator that what you’re about to eat isn’t so great. Again, the stem should also be smooth with no ring around it. Finding a ring is also an indicator you shouldn’t eat it. The most important thing to remember is to never eat unless you are absolutely 100% certain of its identity. Contrary to claims, there is no “quick test” to see if one is edible or not that you can do without risk as toxins don’t necessarily have to hit the stomach to be effective.. That’s not to say that removing them is justified still, all you have to do is not eat them to avoid their ill effects. Similarly, your pet won’t get sick by simply being around them, they would also have to eat them to encounter the ill effects. Fungi are around you all the time, the arrival of the fruit makes them no greater of a threat.

Written by Rach Louise 

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