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Mushroom Information and Educational Projects with Mushrooms

The Mushroom

What is a mushroom? Mushrooms are not plants! Recently it has been discovered that they are more closely related to animals. But at one time, Fungi, including mushrooms, were believed to be close relatives of plants so much of their nomenclature (names for parts of the mushroom) are close to the names used for plant parts. It is the fruit (like an apple) of the mushroom "body" and contain mushroom "seeds" called spores. The body of the mushroom in called mycelium and its individual parts are microscopic. Since the body of the mushroom is usually dispersed over a relatively large area it is rarely noticed. In nature some species of mushrooms may have a body that spreads over hundreds of square miles!  


Mushrooms are fungi, and are usually placed in a Kingdom of their own apart from plants and animals. Mushrooms contain no chlorophyll and most are considered saprophytes. That is, they obtain their nutrition from metabolizing non living organic matter. This means they break down and "eat" dead plants, like your compost pile does.

The body of the mushroom stores nutrients and other essential compounds, and when enough material is stored and the conditions are right they start to fruit - produce mushrooms. It is a hidden kingdom. The part of the fungus that we see is only the fruit of the organism. The living body of the fungus is a mycelium made out of a web of tiny filaments called hyphae. The mycelium is usually hidden in the soil, in wood, or another food source. A mycelium may fill a single ant, or cover many acres. The branching hyphae can add over a half mile (1 km) of total length to the mycelium each day. These webs live unseen until they develop mushrooms, puffballs, truffles, brackets, cups, birds nests, corals or other fruiting bodies. If the mycelium produces microscopic fruiting bodies, people may never notice the fungus.

Most fungi build their cell walls out of chitin. This is the same material as the hard outer shells of insects and other arthropods. Plants do not make chitin.

Fungi feed by absorbing nutrients from the organic material in which they live. Fungi do not have stomachs. They must digest their food before it can pass through the cell wall into the hyphae. Hyphae secrete acids and enzymes that break the surrounding organic material down into simple molecules they can easily absorb- this is composting.   Recent scientific studies have sown that Mushrooms Slow Climate Warming In Northern Forests.

Mushrooms are nutritious: They are a good source of B vitamins, especially niacin and riboflavin, and rank the highest among vegetables for protein content. But because they are low in fat and calories, Western nutritionists mistakenly considered them of no food value (a fresh pound has only about 125 calories). Yet in dried form, mushrooms have almost as much protein as veal and a significant amount of complex carbohydrates called polysaccharides. Shiitake mushrooms are among the most delicious & very nutritious.

Mushrooming up over night? If the body is spread out and microscopic, how do mushrooms grow so quickly? There are two basic reasons: 1) Since they store up compounds between fruiting and most fruit once a year, they have a lot of reserve available to support the mushroom. 2) Mushrooms develop differently than plants or animals do. Plants and animals grow through cell division - to get bigger they have to produce more cells. Cell division is relatively slow and requires a lot of energy. The mushroom body also grows by cell division. However, the mushroom fruit does not grow by cell division. Just about as soon as it starts to develop, a mushroom has almost the same number of cells that the mature mushroom will have. The mushroom increases in size through cell ENLARGEMENT! This means that the cells can balloon up very rapidly. Very little energy is required, basically the cells just enlarge with water. So a mushroom can increase in size as fast as water can be pumped into its cells. Almost overnight a mushroom can go from a pin head to a large mushroom.

Some mushroom terms:

bullethyphae (h - fee) plural: the threads that form the body of a fungus (mycelium)
bulletmycelium (my - se - lee - um): see hyphae
bulletmycorrhiza (my - koh - r - zuh) singular; mycorrhizae (my - koh - r - zee) plural: a beneficial combination between a fungus and a living plant root
bulletNomenclature (nō - mən - klā'chər) a system of names or terms as used by an individual or community, especially those used in a particular science (scientific nomenclature).
bulletsymbiosis (sim - by - h - sis) singular; symbioses (sim - by - h - sees) plural: a partnership formed between two living organisms.


Mushrooms need water for their fruit to "grow". That is why a saucer and a humidity tent is included with Mushroom Kits TM.

Mushrooms have no skin so they can lose water to the atmosphere very easily. That is why they grow in high humidity (lots of water vapor in the air) conditions. If the humidity is too low the cells lose water faster than it can be "pumped" in and the immature mushroom dries up and dies.

Mushrooms love all the water they can get? NO! Mushrooms need to breath just like humans do, except they do not have lungs. Mushroom cells exchange gases directly with the atmosphere. If the body of the mushroom is submerged in water it is comparable to drowning. No oxygen can be exchanged, anaerobic bacteria (bacteria which do not need oxygen to thrive) build up, and the mushroom is choked to death.

It is almost the same with the mushroom fruit. If it is too dry they lose too much water and desiccate. However, if it is too wet - the humidity is too high - the excess water prevents any gas exchange and the developing mushroom chokes off.

Sonoma Brown Oyster Mushrooms

Things you can watch and do with Mushrooms

A. Growth Rates

Like most organisms without thermal regulation (they can not control nor maintain their body temperature), mushrooms grow faster when it is warmer. Try measuring the growth rates of the same variety of mushrooms in a Mushroom Pot at different temperatures. The Sonoma Brown Mushroom Kit produces a good mushroom to work with.

Once the pinheads (young mushrooms that look like a fat white pencil tip) form, you could measure the length of the young mushroom every 4 or 8 hours. If you measured growth rates at 60 F, 70 F, and 80 F would find a marked difference in growth rates. If the temperature is too low, the mushroom will grow very slowly or not at all. If the temperature is too high, most likely the mushroom will die.

B. Spore Prints

A mushroom produces spores instead of seeds. Fungi are sessile (immobile). Unlike animals, they cannot walk or fly to new habitats. Their immobility generally leaves only two ways for fungi to extend their range: they can grow into an adjoining area, or disperse spores or seeds. Most fungal spores are single cells. They can travel beyond the physical limits of their parent into more distant territory.  The spore are produced on the gills you can see on the underside of the mushroom. These spores are microscopic and can only be seen under a microscope. However, each mushroom produces hundreds of thousands of spores, and this mass of spores is easy to see. With a little ingenuity you could figure out a way to "count" how many spores one mushroom can produce...

Pick a large mushroom off your Mushroom PotTM and place it gills down it on a dark piece of paper. Keep it at room temperature in a low humidity area. If the mushroom is very mature you may see a "spore print" of the gills in an hour or so. It may take a less mature mushroom several hours or overnight to produce this print. Each line you see is made up of mounds of microscopic spores.

Do Mushrooms Really Grow by Cell Enlargement?

With a microscope and a little work and fine motor coordination you can check to see if mushrooms really grow by cell enlargement.

Take a sample of the mushroom as soon as the pin head is visible. Section as thinly as possible with a brand new razor blade, stain you section and measure the cell diameter under a microscope.

As the mushroom grows, take sections from the stalk.

What you need:

bulletMushroom Kit
bulletMicroscope slides & cover slips.
bulletVery sharp razor blade.
bulletBasic supplies for preparing material for microscopy.



"Stains" to try:

  1. 3% KOH (potassium hydroxide) or 5-10% NH4OH (ammonium hydroxide)
  2. Cotton Blue (Amman's Solution; Aniline Blue)
  3. Cresyl Blue (0.5 - 1.0% aqueous solution)
  4. Methylene Blue (1% aqueous solution)

Click here for Mushroom Log Kits grow mushrooms as easily as growing a potted plant.

Mushroom Hunting can be dangerous.  In August 2012 an article came out:  Mushroom Hunting Claims 18 Lives In 10 Days 

A bountiful Italian mushroom season has turned deadly, claiming the lives of at least 18 people in recent weeks.

According to Italy's La Repubblica newspaper, mushroom seekers have been so relentless in their pursuit of their favorite fungi, they have been abandoning safety procedures -- donning camouflage and hunting in darkness in an effort to scout remote, highly-coveted troves, Reuters reported.

"There is too much carelessness," Gino Comelli, head of the Alpine rescue service in northwest Italy's Valle di Fassa, is quoted as saying. "Too many people don't give a darn about the right rules and unfortunately this is the result."

Eighteen people have died in just a 10-day period. Many of them had forgone proper footwear, clothing and equipment and died after steep falls down Alpine slopes.

According to the Telegraph, the most recent case involved a 65-year-old woman who plummeted 40 meters to her death near the town of Sondrio, not far from the Swiss border.

Mushroom-hunting remains an extremely popular pastime not just in Italy but throughout much of continental Europe. This summer's mix of heavy rains and hot sunshine have produced a bumper crop of mushrooms in Italy this season.

Let's Grow Mushrooms! - 2 DVD Set by Marc Keith

How to Grow Mushrooms:  A complete hands-on guide to cultivating edible and medicinal mushrooms at home or school! This 2 DVD set is extremely comprehensive and easy to follow. Highly recommended for both novices and experienced mushroom growers.  Let's Grow Mushrooms! is ideal for both the experienced cultivator who wants to see the more complicated tasks demonstrated in a visual format, and the beginning mushroom grower who is confused about exactly where to start the whole process. If you're a student, our DVD will help you turn in a show-stopper at the science fair. $49.95 + S/H

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