I’ve always had an odd fascination for mushrooms. It’s something about how ephemeral they are–spotting a bright yellow cap tentatively poking from leaf litter on the forest floor and knowing that I very well could be the only one to ever see this mysterious structure. Perhaps it’s also the incredible variety of forms: yellow, red, purple, orange, black, glow-in-the-dark, phallic-shaped, round, jelly-like, bearing gills or pores, smelling of dirt and rot and death and how there are always organisms waiting to turn your body back into the earth.
Margaret Atwood’s poem “Mushrooms” reads like it is inspired by the same fascination that I experience. Read it here. The language of this poem sings. It is an incredibly beautiful description of such an overlooked part of our environment.“they ooze up through the earth during the night like bubbles, like tiny bright red balloons filling with water; a sound below sound…”
Mushrooms are a kind of fungus, and what we typically think of as a “mushroom” is really only one of many possible forms. A “typical” mushroom, then, consists of several parts. First, a stalk, or stipe, which rises from the ground, sometimes held within what is called the cup or volva. If there is a ring around the stipe, that ring is called an annulus. The stipe terminates in the mushroom cap, also called the pileus. Under the cap may be pores or gills, which contain the mushroom’s reproductive structures: spores. White warts on the cap are remnants of the universal veil, a layer of tissue that completely surrounds some species of young mushrooms when they emerge from the ground.
But the mushroom itself is really only the fruiting body of the fungus. It takes several days for the fungus to create this structure, usually after a good rain, by rapidly pulling in water and inflating preformed cells. Spores are released within hour or days, and the fruiting body collapses back to the ground. So if a mushroom isn’t the whole story…what is?“Underfoot there’s a cloud of rootlets, shed hairs or a bundle of loose threads blown slowly through the midsoil. These are their flowers, these fingers reaching through the darkness to the sky,”
The actual body of the fungus lies underground. It is called the mycelium, and is made up of many tiny thread-like filaments, the hyphae. This is what germinates when a spore settles out on substrate. In contrast to the fruiting bodies of the fungus, the mycelium can be long-lived and massive. A species of fungus called Armillaria solidipes is considered one of the largest and longest-lived organisms: its mycelia covers over 3.4 square miles and it is more than 2,400 years old.“They feed in shade, on halfleaves as they return to water, on slowly melting logs, deadwood.”
Fungi lack chlorophyll, and so do not have the means to produce their own food from sunlight. Instead, the mycelium feeds either by decomposing organic substances (logs or other dead matter in the soil) or by forming a symbiosis with a living green plant. Those that break down dead matter are called saprophytic, from the Latin for rotten or dead. The title of “death-eater” gives mushrooms a dark connotation and infects the imagination with images of this grisly duty. As Atwood puts it: “flesh into earth into flesh.” The world, reborn.
Pacioni, Giovanni and Gary Lincoff. 1981. Simon & Schuster’s Guide to Mushrooms. Simon & Schuster Inc. New York, NY.