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Delightful and Sometimes Dangerous Decomposers

Since mushrooms have been in the news of late, we thought we would try to enlighten our readers about one of the most unusual and extremely important organisms in nature. Ominous sounding names like Destroying Angel, Deadly Galerina, and Poision Pie, are obviously poisonous; but Sulfer Tuft,  Jack O’Lantern, and Fly Agaric are equally as dangerous. However Morels, Meadow Mushrooms, and White Matsutake are a culinary delight. 

Dead organisms provide food for other living things to survive. The most important decomposers are FBI’s … fungus, bacteria and insects. Although living underground and out-of-site for most of the year, Autumn is a wonderful time to observe fungi as they reveal their colorful reproductive structures in the form of mushrooms, puffballs and brackets.

Fungi form one of the kingdoms of living things. This kingdom includes many fungus that have become closely involved with our lives, such as yeast for brewing and baking, Penicillium for the production of important antibiotics, and many more for eating on pizza, salads and other delicious foods. Fungi lack chlorophyll, so are unable to make their own food through photosynthesis, unless you’re a lichen. They must consume organic matter just as animals do. Food for fungus usually comes in the form of dead leaves, needles, roots, logs, dead animals, and feces, but may include some living plant and animal matter (that constant itching between your toes is caused by Athlete’s Foot fungus). Fungi grow on or into their food sources, penetrating the organic matter with thin strands called hyphae. Hyphae secrete digestive enzymes and dissolve the food. This energy is transported through a dense underground network of hyphae, called mycelium. For the most part, hyphae and mycelia are microscopic. Lifting a thick layer of leaf litter or rolling over a nicely rotting log may reveal white web-like strands of larger mycelia. The mycelia is the main body of a fungus and can survive for hundreds of years, constantly growing and replacing broken or dead hyphae. Only when the mycelia generate their reproductive structures do most people observe the fungus. Reproductive structures come in three main forms: mushrooms, puffballs and brackets. Other variations on the theme include cup, coral, and jelly fungi, as well as stinkhorns and chanterelles. Despite the wide variety of shapes, these reproductive structures serve one purpose, to produce millions of tiny, dust-like spores which are spread by wind, rain or animals. If a spore is fortunate enough to land in an ideal location that is dark, moist and provides a food source, it may begin to grow new mycelia.

Fungi play three major roles in nature: as decomposers recycling matter into soil, parasites, and through symbiotic relationships. Symbiosis is when two or more organisms live in close contact and help each other survive. Lichens fall into this category where a fungus and algae coexist to form some interesting structures.   In other situations, the hyphae grow in very close contact with rootlets of trees and other plants. The fungus provides the tree with valuable nitrogen and phosphorus to grow, while the tree provides carbon to the fungus for food. This mutual relationship benefits both the fungus and the tree, and is essential to forest health.

August through October is an ideal time to observe a wide variety of fungal fruiting bodies especially in years where there has been above average rainfall. Although fungi can be found throughout the late spring and entire summer, the display in fall is most spectacular. Keep in mind, these decomposers can be delicious, but also very dangerous. There are no simple guidelines that can be used to distinguish edible from poisonous mushrooms. This task should be left to experts since in depth knowledge is necessary to correctly identify similar-looking species. Each year, people get sick and even die from unknowingly eating poisonous mushrooms.

A good, local source to learn more about mushrooms and other fungus is the Ohio Mushroom Society (visit www.ohiomushroom.org). The recent wet weather, followed by last week’s warm, sunny days should provide for a splendid display of mushrooms and other fungi. Find some fabulous fungi in nearby nature yourself.

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