Friday, December 26, 2014

Mysterious and Wonderful!

A single toadstool or a clump of mushrooms can appear suddenly, mysteriously, over night, in my backyard or among the leaf litter of the forest– in fact almost any natural place - even in the midst of a well manicured lawns. Mushrooms can appear in a great variety of colors and forms, from minuscule to amazingly large.   Here in northern California they come pop up like magic after winter rains begin.
German New Year's card wishing " Lots of luck" -
 Many people if Northern Europe, Russia, and parts of Asia take mushroom hunting as one of the  joys of life...
The mushroom structure that we see popping up in our garden  is only the tip of the iceberg!  At the end of the season, last year, when mushrooms were ripening, spores were produced in huge numbers, and releasing into the air. Each spore is microscopic – between 1-5 x the size of a typical bacterium.  Spores are designed for waiting.  They desiccate and bide their time – perhaps blowing in the wind all summer– but they stay alive until the winter rains begin the following year. 

Oak mushroom
Now is their moment!  The spore divides once, twice – again and again and forms a system of cytoplasm filled tubes (hyphae) in the rich soil or within an organic material.  The division continues and as tubes come into contact with potential foodstuff; digestive enzymes are released into the material to break it down.  The nutrients are then absorbed back into the organism; and it is now empowered to continue its growth and expansion.  Large masses of fluid filled hypha form an underground tangled mass.  (Mycelium).  Oddly these tubes do not divide into separate cells –but open tubes that permit nutrients to flow freely within the hyphae mass.

growing on a soil rich in decaying organic material
 Finally when the organism has stored sufficient nutrients, an environmental trigger stimulates a portion of the DNA to become activated and a complex series of biochemical reactions occur to cause the mushroom fruiting body to be formed and thrust up from underground and to form a mushroom – often overnight!, to begin the next generation of spore making. Some factors that can contribute to ‘triggering” mushroom formation are temperature, moisture or humidity, light, or balance of gases in the environment.  

Growing on a rotten log in rain forest 

Many mushroom masses continue to live for many years… becoming inactive during times of drought or freezing cold, but when conditions are right again – the growth begins and the expansion to gather more nutrients happens again.

Some mushrooms are given fanciful names - can you guess what these black finger like fungi are called in the rain forest of Ecuador?
Some hyphae masses live in close relationship with living tree or plant roots in a symbiotic relationship.  The tree gains water collecting ability, and nutrients from the soil; and the fungus harvests a small amount of nutrition.  In some cases the fungus takes too much from the plants and the plant dies.   Some fungal masses are enormous – One documented case in a Washington State forest is a single fungal mycelium that extends for over 1500 acres and has lived continuously for at least 2400 years…  This makes them the largest living organism in our planet…and one of the longest lived.
Growing in my raised vegetable bed
Fungi have been superb at evolving to make use of different food sources.  Many have adapted to certain plant communities – adapted for living or dead tissue.  There are some that prefer the more scarce organic material to be found in open soil; and others that prefer the roots of oak trees, aspen trees, or clusters of perennial grass.  In addition to mushroom fungus, some have adapted to human skin (ever had ring worm?), living plant leaves, and organs of living animals, and on and on… In addition to mushrooms the fungus group also includes molds and other non fruiting varieties.

Ring worm on human skin - not a'worm' at all - but a fungus! ( not on me!)
Fungi definitely cannot be considered plants because they don't make their own food – they gain nutrition by breaking down dead or living tissue.  They are definitely are not animals because they have no motion or responsive to their environment.  They are currently considered to be a kingdom of life all by themselves.  To read more:

Underside of log in rain forest ( Ecuador)
One of the grandest of experiences is to join a mushroom hunt with people who know what they are doing … I have several times hunted mushrooms in Europe and once in Kyrgyzstan… A group of people walk in a line though the forest – Each person separated from the next by 15 feet or so… and it is just like when you were a kid hunting for Easter eggs.  “I see one!” “There’s a whole cluster”  “ Look how big that one is”… Of course its true that there are very dangerous mushrooms – and so each group must have a trustworthy knowledgeable person that can make critical decisions about each mushroom - which to keep for eating and which to discard.  And ‘Oh my goodness’ they are tasty – a blend of wild mushrooms sautéed in olive oil and herbs… served with good meat… fantastic! 
The 'forest' of mushrooms was growing in Golden Gate San Francisco

I see such beautiful mushrooms here in California but I do not know enough to trust myself to choose which ones to eat.   Such a pity… there is classes that one can take… But I hear the best strategy is to go with someone who is has the knowledge and learn from them.   Sadly the bad mushrooms are deadly bad.  So this is a high stakes ‘sport’.  Even so I enjoy their ephemeral beauty – they are delicate and wonderful!

Shelf fungus - can grow for many years - adding a new layer each year... (Nor. Cal. coastal fog zone)

One of then strangest - This Northern California  fungus is called "Slime Mold" -
...the cell mass can actually move very slowly from one place to another seeking a better food source.