What Are Mushrooms?
The term "mushroom" as used here refers to fungi that have large, fleshy fruiting bodies that can easily be seen without magnification.
What are fungi?
Fungi (plural) (fungus - singular) are living things that are made of strands of filaments. Their cells have a nucleus. They absorb their food from outside sources and have chitin in their cell walls.
What Do They Look Like?
The main body of a mushroom, known as the mycelium, is a mass of filaments that grows below the surface of the ground or in objects like rotting wood. The mycelium is present throughout the life of the mushroom.
The fruiting body is the structure that people commonly recognize as a mushroom. It can be seen at certain times of the year growing on the ground or other places like rotting wood. The fruiting body has a cap and stipe. The cap supports the spore-producing surface of the mushroom. The stipe extends the cap upward, allowing the spores to spread a greater distance by air than if they were closer to the ground.
How Big Are They?
The largest living organism in the world is a honey mushroom (Armillaria ostoyae). It occurs in the Malheur National Forest in eastern Oregon where it grows in the soil. It stretches 3.5 miles across, covers an area larger than 1,665 football fields and is believed to be more than 2,400 years old!
It is estimated that there are about 2,000 kinds of mushrooms living in Illinois. One of the smallest ones that is commonly seen is the bird's nest or splash cup Cyathus striatus. This species can be as small as two-tenths of an inch tall and two-tenths of an inch wide.
Where Do They Live?
Mushrooms grow where they can easily obtain nutrients. They prefer good-quality, moist soil or places with many nutrients, such as in rotting wood. Mushrooms can be found throughout Illinois.
How Do They Reproduce?
Mushroom fruiting bodies appear when conditions, such as temperature and moisture, are favorable. The fruiting bodies produce spores. Spores are moved by air, water or insects. When a spore reaches a suitable location, it starts growing to form filaments called hyphae.
What Do They Eat?
Mushrooms can be thought of as having their stomach on the outside of the body since they must digest their food before it can pass through their cell walls. The mycelium releases enzymes that break down substances into simple molecules, which are then absorbed through the cell walls.
Does Anything Eat Them?
Yes! White-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), tree squirrels, eastern chipmunks (Tamias striatus), slugs, snails, rabbits, box turtles, ground squirrels, mice, fungus flies/gnats, some beetles and even humans eat mushrooms.
While some mushrooms are edible, some are poisonous, and a few are deadly poisonous. No mushroom should be eaten until it has been properly identified by an expert. Neither the authors nor their agencies or institutions accept responsibility for any adverse effects that may arise from eating wild mushrooms.
What Else Should I Know About Them?
A puffball (Calvatia gigantea) can contain more than seven trillion spores. If every spore grew into a puffball, the total weight of the puffballs produced would be more than the weight of the earth.
Although spores are extremely small, their presence can be seen by making a spore print. After removing the stalk from a fresh mushroom specimen, place the cap on a sheet of white paper (gill side touching the paper) and cover it with a bowl. The spores should drop onto the paper after six to 12 hours and form a colored "print" on the paper.
Mushrooms contain chitin in their cell walls. This hard material is also found in the brittle outer covering of insects and crustaceans (crabs, lobsters, shrimp).
Some mushrooms are bioluminescent and emit light in a manner similar to that of fireflies and jellyfishes. The phenomenon known as foxfire, wood that when broken apart "glows in the dark," does so because it is colonized by bioluminescent fungi.