Fungi are a group of organisms and microorganisms that are classified within their own kingdom, the fungal kingdom, as they are neither plant nor animal. Fungi draw their nutrition from decaying organic matter, living plants and even animals. They do not photosynthesize as they totally lack the green pigment chlorophyll, present in green plants. Many play an important role in the natural cycle as decomposers and return nutrients to the soil, they are not all destructive. Fungi are even used for medical purposes, such as species within the penicillium genus, which provide antibiotics, e.g. penicillin.

In addition to the beauty of mushrooms, fungi provide a critical part of nature’s continuous rebirth: fungi recycle dead organic matter into useful nutrients. Sometimes the fungus doesn’t wait for the bio matter to die, in which case the fungus is called a parasite. Many plants, however, are dependent on the help of a fungus to get their own nutrients, living in a symbiotic relationship called a mycorrhizal association.

Fungi digest food outside their bodies: they release enzymes into the surrounding environment, breaking down organic matter into a form the fungus can absorb. Mycorrhizal associates benefit from this by absorbing materials digested by the fungi growing among their roots.

Fungi reproduce by releasing spores from a fruiting body. The fruit, called a mushroom, releases spores into the air, and the wind carries the spores off to start the next generation. Around 100,000 species of fungi are divided into five phyla, based largely on the characteristics of their reproductive organs.

About mushrooms
Mushrooms are unique. They are neither animal nor plant. Some people consider them plants for various reasons, but they differ from plants in that they lack the green chlorophyll that plants use to manufacture their own food and energy. For this reason they are placed in a Kingdom of their own,” The Kingdom of Fungi”.

Mushrooms are also unique within the Fungal Kingdom itself, because they produce the complex fruiting body which we all know as ‘The Mushroom’, all of the mushrooms are placed in a division called ‘Eumycota’ meaning ‘The True Fungi’.

The True Fungi are what we all know as mushrooms. They are divided into other groups depending on the structure of their fruiting bodies and various other macro and microscopic characteristics. The two major groups of Eumycota are Basidiomycetes and Ascomycetes.

The mushroom is the fruit of the fungal organism that produces them, just like an apple tree produces apples to bear seeds to ensure the continuation of it’s species, so the fungal organism produces mushrooms that carry spores to ensure the continuation of it’s own species. Therefore, the mushroom is the reproductive organ for the fungus.

This means that by picking a mushroom we do not harm the fungus itself, because the main body of the organism lies underground in the form of a network of minute threads called ‘Hyphae’. When two compatible hyphae meet they join together to form another network called the ‘Mycelium’ which grows quietly and unseen under ground for most of the year until the conditions are right for fruiting and that’s when we get to see mushrooms.

Unfortunately, mushrooms are very delicate things, they do not last, some have a life span of less than a day others may survive one week, and a group of tougher mushrooms may last months but they have a tough woody texture.

Each Mushroom carries within it millions or even billions of spores, to the extent, that in the case of some kinds of mushrooms grown commercially, workers have to wear dust masks to protect themselves from the spore dust and breath easily!!! Only a few of these spores manage to survive and grow into a mycelial network producing new mushrooms. To make life even more difficult, two compatible spores have to meet to be able to produce mushrooms.

The main role of fungi and mushrooms, they are the main recyclers in nature, they break down wood and humus back into their original components providing food for living plants by returning dead trees and forest littler to simple organic materials in a form suitable for plant use.

Not all mushrooms grow on wood though. Another group of mushrooms grow from the ground feeding on humus and any organic materials contained in the soil, but at the same time they form a special beneficial relationship with live trees, this relationship is called a ‘Symbiotic Relationship’ where the tree provides the mushroom with some of the glucose they produce and in return the mushroom gives the tree essential minerals for it’s growth, this exchange of nutrients takes place through the roots of the tree. This is why some mushrooms are always associated with certain trees. A group of symbiotic mushrooms grow underground and can only be found by digging for them.

Many of the old statements as to the methods of distinguishing between edible and poisonous Fungi are quite valueless. It is quite an erroneous notion that only those Fungi are good to eat which grow in open places, and also that if the skin of the cap cannot be peeled off, as in the common Mushroom, a fungus is unfit for food, for many good species grow in woods (though comparatively few of these actually grow on trees), and in many excellent species which are constantly eaten there is no separable cuticle, whereas in numerous deadly species, it is as readily peeled off as in the Mushroom. Equally without foundation is the statement that if a silver spoon placed among Fungi that are cooking turns black, it is a proof that such Fungi are poisonous.

Good Fungi have usually a pleasant mushroomy odour, some have a smell of new meal, others a faint anise-like scent or no particular odour at all. Evil-smelling Fungi are always to be regarded with distrust. It is a suspicious sign of dangerous qualities, if a fungus on being cut or bruised quickly turns deep blue or greenish, also if it is noticed that a small piece broken from a freshly-gathered fungus when tasted leaves, instead of an agreeable, nutty flavour, a sharp tingling on the tongue, or is in any way bitter. All such should be avoided. It is as well, also, not to eat any Fungi, which contain a milky juice which exudes freely on being cut.