If the recent precipitation dampened the ground enough, beguiling structures will erupt from ground, lawn, and log to scent the air with their damp, heady fragrance: Mushrooms!
Mushrooms are the fleshy fruiting bodies of certain kinds of fungi, the structures that produce and distribute the organisms’ spores. (“Fungus” is one; “fungi” are many.) While our attention is drawn to the sometimes fantastic shapes or bright colors of the fruiting body, most of the actual fungus is the hidden mycelium, a mass of fine threads that wind through the soil or organic material, such as wood.
Fungi are not plants and are, in fact, in their own Kingdom of living things. Fungi are non-green organisms that reproduce by spores - which includes yeasts and molds, as well as the organisms that produce mushrooms. Although about 100,000 fungi species have been described, some researchers estimate perhaps over a million species exist. Fungi have existed for a long time, too - possibly as long as 900 million years.
Most fungi that produce mushrooms are perennials, living for many years and fruiting when conditions warrant. Some fungi of field and meadow spread out among the grassland plants as they grow then send up mushrooms along their outside edge, forming circles of mushrooms, or "fairy rings."
Some fungi can live thousands of years and can become quite large: the mycelial mass of one forest mushroom in Eastern Oregon is believed to be at least 2,400 years old and cover over 2,000 acres.
Fungi do not have chlorophyll and cannot produce their own food as do green plants. Like animals, fungi feed entirely on other living or once-living things. One way to group fungi is by what they feed on: saprophytes subsist on dead or decaying matter (usually plant); parasites feed on living organisms; mycorrhizal associates form a mutually beneficial relationship with other plants.
Saprophytes play an essential role in recycling nutrients, breaking down complex molecules in dead plants and animals into smaller molecules that are more readily used again by other organisms. While we may think of fungi as parasitic, only a very small number of fungi species are pathogenic or harmful to other living organisms.
Mycorrhizal associates form an intimate relationship with other plants, often particular species of trees, through the green plants' rootlets. A sort of nutrient-trade-agreement, this relationship is vital to the particular fungus. This relationship also makes it more efficient for the green plant to draw and use nutrients from the soil, adding considerably to its ability to thrive. Such relationships are the key to survival for many trees and shrubs that live in the sandy, porous soils of the Oregon Dunes.
This is an ancient, fundamental association as it appears that the first large, upright, land-based green plants had similar relationships with fungi. In fact, it may be the fungi got to land first. In addition to soon providing a helpful partner to green plants, those first terrestrial fungi pioneered rot on land and started soil development that allowed the green plants to establish, thrive, and diversify.
Interested in identifying this season’s upcoming mushrooms?
Keep in mind that mushrooms are described and organized by the form and shape of the fruiting body, as well as the material the mycelium is growing in. With a stalk or without; with gills, ribs, pores, or "teeth"; on wood, soil, or under/with specific plants are characteristics used to start the identification process.
Many wild mushrooms are deliciously edible - and a few are quite poisonous. Further, mushrooms of a single species can vary greatly and many species can be confused with others. Accurate identification is absolutely essential for safely collecting delicious wild mushrooms for the table.
Fortunately, we don’t have to know the names of these intriguing fruits to enjoy their enchanting forms and colors or to appreciate their indispensable roles in nature.
Find a link to online information on mushroom identification, see the recent post here: www.facebook.com/wavecrestdiscoveries . For information on how you can arrange an exploration of our fascinating natural history, contact Marty at 541/267-4027, firstname.lastname@example.org, or www.facebook.com/wavecrestdiscoveries. Questions and comments about local natural history are welcome.