What is a mushroom?
Many people think that mushrooms are vegetables. But this is not the case. All vegetables and fruits come from edible plants. The main characteristic of plants is that they contain chlorophyll, which is used to convert energy from sunlight into carbohydrates. However, mushrooms contain no chlorophyll which means they can not photosynthesize; they ‘steal’ the carbohydrates they need from plants. A mushroom (Agaricus Bisporus) is one of the many species of fungi. They have been given their own kingdom due to the sheer number of species that exist: ‘The Kingdom of Fungi’.
Ecology of mushrooms
Based on their relationship with plants, fungi can be roughly divided into three categories:
1. Saprophytes grow on dead organic matter such as fallen leaves, plant roots and dead wood. They extract carbon dioxide and minerals from it. This category includes many gourmet and medicinal types of mushrooms such as for example white button, crimini, shiitake and oyster mushrooms..
2. Parasites grow on living trees and other plants, extracting their nutrients. Therefore, they are also called the murderers among the mushrooms. Once the tree or bush has died, the dead matter is cleaned up by the saprophytes.
3. The third group – the mycorrhiza – forms a symbiotic association with the roots of living trees. They take sugars and nutrients from the tree, but they give back minerals and essential elements, enlarging the root system of their hosts. Mushrooms that belong to this group are difficult to cultivate and are often found only in nature. Porcini mushrooms, chanterelles and truffles are part of this group.
Mushrooms start their lives underground. As white fluff. This is the so-called ‘mycelium’, the fungal threads that sprout the mushrooms. A mushroom is actually the fruit of a much bigger fungus which grows under the ground. In the wild, mycelium can stay underground for a very long time. If the circumstances are favourable, particularly the presence of food, humidity and temperature are important – buds will form that seek daylight. This is the birth of a mushroom. The small – usually white – ball will quickly grow into a proper mushroom. The cap will open and will start dropping millions of miniscule seeds (spores). These seeds are spread by the wind, end up on the ground and start forming another mycelium.