Magical mushrooms

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Did you know that mushrooms are fungi, in the same category as the one-celled yeast or the mildew that sprouts on your shoes in the damp? They have an important role to play in our ecosystem.

Leaves are the world’s oldest factories. They contain the green pigment called chlorophyll, which, along with sunlight, helps them manufacture their own food. Plants can therefore be called producers. Animals, on the other hand are consumers. And there are other living things, such as fungi, which are neither producers nor consumers. What part then do they play in nature’s purposeful web?

Fungi are plants – although they lie in a separate kingdom from true plants. They are very simple, non-flowering plants that lack true leaves, roots and a stem. By secreting certain enzymes, fungi break down substances to get food. This makes them reducers, and they are perhaps the most important inhabitants of damp, woodland soil, as they help in humus-formation.

You must’ve all seen mushrooms – those little umbrella-like things that often seem to pop up overnight, out of nowhere on the forest floor or on tree stems, making them seem almost ‘magical’. Though mushrooms are the best-known fungi, the minute, one-celled yeast that causes fruit juice to ferment and the bread in your home to rise, is also a fungus. The tiny mildew that sprouts on your shoes and other leather articles during the monsoons is also a fungus. And the mold that forms on rotting fruit is fungus too; in fact so many of the famous brands of cheese get their distinctive flavours from molds.

Most mushrooms are to be seen when the rains set in, though some may even be discovered in the dry season. Often brilliantly-coloured and exhibiting amazing variations in size, the familiar cap-like portion of the mushroom is actually only the reproductive part of the fungal body. Many mushroom species are poisonous, so until you know it isn’t, or unless you are accompanied by someone who knows about these plants, you are advised to leave them alone. Unfortunately, there really is no easy way of telling if a mushroom is poisonous or not. But you can handle the ones that are sold as food. Alternatively, if you have confirmed the identity of a wild one, you can examine it and take a closer look at its structure. Mushrooms have to be handled very gently or else you can destroy the entire fruiting body. If you tap the mushroom cap on a piece of white paper, you will see minute flecks on the paper. These are spores and there are countless such spores in a single cap. These spores bring about the reproduction of the fungus. Under natural conditions, hundreds of thousands of them are shot out (released) from the main plant. Raindrops and wind help scatter the spores that are subsequently carried over long distances. This should explain why these little magical plants are so widely distributed on this planet’s land area.

Examine the fungus downwards, where the plant’s vital structures lie. The umbrella-like cap works as a shelter. On its underside are the gills that produce the spores. The cap protects the spores from rain and this facilitates the carrying of dry spores by the wind. Now look at the stalk, which functions as the stem of plants. The stem connects the cap to the web of filaments below. The thread-like filaments are called hyphae – the underground part that carries out the functions of roots and leaves. The hyphae form a network in the soil. This network is called a mycelium, which spreads through the soil absorbing water and nutrition. You may sometimes have seen mushrooms growing in a ring. Long ago it was believed that mushrooms grew in a circle where fairies danced at night! The truth is that a ring of mushrooms marks the edges of the hyphal network, underground. It is these hyphae that do the real hard work of decomposition, of breaking down organic matter. Occasionally you may see mushrooms growing at the base of large trees. If you dig around them slightly, you will see that certain mycelia form a joint network with the tree’s root hair. This makes it possible for the mushroom to tap that tree for its nutrients. One would assume that this harms the tree. But it has been found that some trees grow poorly if the mushrooms are not present!


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Bittu Sahgal

The writer is Editor, Sanctuary magazine

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