Food - General
By: - at February 17, 2014

15 Fascinating Facts about Mushrooms

The humble mushroom has a long history with humankind. Both myths and legends lend magic to the fruiting bodies – all which are further supported by the fungi’s vivid colors and seeming ability to sprout overnight. Moreover, foodies prize certain varieties of mushroom, which lend a rich, earthy flavor to various cuisines.

Mushrooms are used in modeling new drugs as well as in recreational drug use. Some people experiment with mushrooms which produce psychoactive effects.

Fly Agaric is a Poisonous and Psychoactive Basidiomycete fungus:
Amanita muscaria or Fly Agaric is a Poisonous and Psychoactive Basidiomycete fungus

The mushroom is also used in the plot lines of stories, and is often the reason behind a death that has been contrived.

Yet, in spite of the toxic quality of some mushrooms, the fungi are also considered a staple that can be fried, baked, stuffed or steamed. For example, morel mushrooms are favorites among mushroom hunters, who follow certain guidelines for hunting the edibles in the spring.

In some cultures psychoactive mushrooms that produce desired hallucinatory effects are often used as a right of passage for members of a tribe. Often referred to as vision quests among North American Native American cultures, male members of the tribe upon reaching a certain age, are required to ingest either psilocybin based or in some cases peyote based mushroom caps. Some vision quests involving making tea from the buttons of the peyote cactus can be very uncomfortable and have often been described as some of the most terrifying experiences that many recreational drug users experience during their entire lifetime. 

mystical mushrooms and mysticism

So, read on to discover some more interesting facts about this fungus, which has been depicted as a poison, a magical symbol, and a delicacy to eat.


15)  France’s Love Affair with the Mushroom
While mushrooms of one kind or another are eaten globally, European markets just aren’t able to get enough of the fungi. The cultivation of mushrooms has been an agricultural process for as long as a millennia. However, France is the first country to turn the food into a commercial crop. Therefore, growing the fungus in a controlled environment can be credited to the French.

King Louis XIII before 1643:
King Louis XIII before 1643

In fact, King Louis XIII loved mushrooms so much that he had 500 miles of compost beds set up in the caves outside of Paris, all for the express purpose of harvesting his own personal crop of champignons.

Indeed, it takes some keen observational skills to cultivate a mushroom crop as the fruiting bodies are sensitive to various environmental extremes or conditions. For instance, if mushrooms get too little rain or are exposed to too much heat, you might not reap much of a harvest.

crop of mushrooms

When farming mushrooms then, the French have artificially created fungus-friendly environments where the above-mentioned factors can more easily be controlled. As a result, mushrooms are grown and harvested in subterranean or cool and damp places, such as caverns, catacombs, and caves.

All these spaces, it is found, provide the fungus with a mushroom-friendly climate – a place where fungi can thrive year-round. Therefore, farmers don’t have to depend solely on growing and harvesting the crop in the spring, when the growing conditions are the most propitious.


14)  An Organism that is Classified by a Variety of Species
Nutritional science considers the mushroom a vegetable, but the fungus is not a part of the plant kingdom. Basically, a fungus, such as a mushroom, is a fleshy, spore-producing fruiting body. Woody or leathery in nature, the mushroom is designed to subsist on decaying or dying plants.

Scanning Electron Microscope Image of Budding Mushroom Spores:
Scanning Electron Microscope Image of Budding Mushroom Spores

Among the division of edible mushrooms alone, there are 2,000 different species that are used in world cuisines. And this number doesn’t even include such fungi, as morels, which are considered to be mushrooms too, even though they belong to a different genetic family.

Variety Agaricus bisporus Regular View:
Variety Agaricus bisporus Regular View
By böhringer friedrich via Wikimedia Commons

The most common variety of edible mushroom is the white button mushroom. The white button variety is the easiest mushroom to cultivate and grow commercially. White buttons are immature versions of mature buttons or crimini mushrooms, which are also known as portabellas.


13)  Expensive Tastes
As already mentioned, mushroom cultivation can be difficult. For example, expensive mushroom types, such as truffles, don’t grow naturally in the wild. The prized delicacies are usually found growing beside the roots of hazelnut and oak trees, where the spores of the fungus are introduced by inoculation.

White Truffle:
White Truffle

Even when using this method, simple factors, such as dry, hot summers and little rain can devastate the crops. This unpredictability keeps truffle prices high — usually $850 or more per pound.

Moreover, certain truffles, like white winter truffles from Alba, Italy, cannot be introduced by an inoculation process, which makes the fungi run more in price. The rare-growing mushrooms can easily cost $2500 per pound.

Black Perigord Truffle:
Black Perigord Truffle

Some marketers have tried to capitalize on the popular and expensive quality of the truffle by offering truffle oils and salts as culinary flavorings. However, these products are usually manufactured with salt or oil that is infused with artificial compounds which mimic the truffle’s flavor.

Global Distribution of Mushroom and Truffle Output in 2005 as % of Top Producer:
Global Distribution of Mushroom and Truffle Output in 2005 as % of Top Producer
By Anwar saadat via Wikimedia Commons

So, are truffles worth the hype, let alone the price? Some truffle lovers emphatically say “Yes!” while others, who are not connoisseurs of the natural cuisine, usually say “No.”

The strong, earthy fungi’s flavor is a well-acquired taste by gourmet aficionados throughout the world. So, truffles continue to be a cash crop throughout much of Europe as well as Australia and in certain parts of the U.S. Truffles are hunted and harvested in both Texas and Oregon.


12)  Nutrient Powerhouses
If you still are suffering from sticker-shock over the price of truffles, you can find other mushrooms that are equally nutritious and far more reasonable in price. Mushrooms, from a health standpoint, are rich in vitamins and minerals and are a good source of B-vitamins, including thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, and folate.

Folate, known as folic acid, is a particularly important supplement for pregnant women as strong folate levels prevent common birth defects.

Additionally, mushrooms are notably high in the vitamins C and D. Because vitamin D is not a common nutrient found in plants, it must be obtained from dairy products or meat. So, for anyone on a vegan diet, mushrooms are a vital source of nutrition.

Guidelines for Identifying Mushrooms that are Fit for Human Consumption:
Guidelines for Identifying Mushrooms that are Fit for Human Consumption

Along with botanical edibles, like pumpkin seeds, mushrooms are a good source of selenium, which has been linked to cancer prevention and is helpful to prostate health. Mushrooms also contain as much potassium as bananas. So, for a highly rich nutritional food source, you can’t beat the compositional components that are contained in the fungus.

Plus, while other foods, such as vegetables, may contain the same kinds of nutrients, they often are boiled, which causes some of the nutrition to be lost. Mushrooms, on the other hand, are usually grilled, baked, steamed, or fried, which does not strip any vitamins or minerals from the fungus.


11)  Feline Fascination
cats love to eat mushroomsBecause they are obligate carnivores, cats aren’t really known for chomping on vegetables. A cat’s gut is short, thereby making it hard for a feline to digest plants. However, a few observant owners have noticed that certain felines have developed a craving for mushrooms, all which has led scientists to research the subject further.

In addition to their other nutrients, mushrooms are rich in protein. Specifically, the fungus contains glutamate – an amino acid or one of the building blocks of protein. Glutamate is also the source of “umami” – a savory taste sensed in food along with the other tastes that are salty, sweet, bitter, or sour in flavor.

Cats that eat mushrooms then really haven’t become vegetarians. While our taste sensors allow us to sample and enjoy a variety of foods, felines possess specific sensors that cause them to pursue protein. That’s what they taste in the mushroom.

Psilocybin Mushrooms Known as "Golden Teacher" Variety:
Psilocybin Mushrooms Known as "Golden Teacher"
By Madi via Wikimedia Commons

Nevertheless, cats really aren’t anatomically designed to feast on the fungi. As a result, most vegetarians warn cat owners about mushrooms growing in the wild. Because all mushrooms emit a glutamate scent, some felines may eat a toadstool and get sick.


10)  Nuclear Warriors
While toadstools are the deadly form of the mushroom fungus, the fungus, itself, regardless of the species, seems to thrive on radiation. Researchers working near Chernobyl discovered a mushroom that is rich in melanin, which also used the substance as an energy source. It seems that the fungus was able to thrive from the nuclear fallout in the area.

Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station - Site of Worst Nuclear Disaster in Human History:
Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station - Site of Worst Nuclear Disaster in Human History

As a result, scientists concluded that fungi use melanin to convert radiation into fuel, much in the same way that plants manufacture chlorophyll to produce energy from solar rays.

melanin and nuclear fallout

This finding presents some interesting possibilities for humankind. First, the melanin in mushrooms is the same substance that is produced by the skin during sun exposure. So, this same substance, which is used to protect the body from the sun, may also be utilized to produce small amounts of fuel for the body.

Secondly, the ability of the mushrooms to use melanin in ionizing radiation is an important consideration for space travel. Therefore, the fungi could be utilized in space missions in the future. Not only would the mushroom reduce the amount of cargo space used for food supplies, it would permit astronauts to stay in orbit longer as well.


9)  Color Your World
Plants have been a source of natural dyes since the beginning of civilization. You may even have used botanical dyes in art and craft projects in your home. For instance, beets are known to create a deep purple-red stain. Some varieties of mushrooms can also be used in the same way.

Generally mycorrhizal fungus is the best type of fungus to use for a dye. One of the representative species in this fungus family that is used for dying materials is the surprise webcap mushroom.

Ericoid Mycorrhizal Fungus Isolated:
Ericoid Mycorrhizal Fungus Isolated
By MidgleyDJ via Wikimedia Commons

Overgrown trails, forest gaps, and pine plantations are excellent places to find this tiny brown mushroom, which produces beautiful pigments in the colors of red and pink. In midsummer, the species is plentiful, and is frequently found growing in small groups. Its cousin, the bloodred webcap, possesses the same dye potential, but is much more solitary and difficult to find.

Leccinum aurantiacum, an Ectomycorrhizal Fungus:
Leccinum aurantiacum, an Ectomycorrhizal Fungus
By Tocekas via Wikimedia Commons

One non-mycorrhizal fungus that makes a good dye source is a bracket fungus called dyer’s polyphore. The species, which is not a true mushroom, produces rosettes that are reminiscent to a clam in shape and color. Prized for the beautiful golden color it creates, the fungus breaks down and eats decaying roots of trees.


8)  Living Large
When you think of a mushroom, you usually envision a fruiting structure that features a cap, stipe (stem), and gills beneath its umbrella cap.

Parts of a Mushroom:
Parts of a Mushroom

However, the small fleshy, spore-bearing bodies can become quite large and never appear above-ground. One of these huge mushrooms was discovered in 1998 and is considered the largest organism on earth.

A large version of the honey fungus or the Armillaria was discovered at the time. The massive mushroom is made up of a network of mycelium (vegetative filaments) that spans over 2,384 acres in Oregon’s Blue Mountains. That amount of acreage is equivalent in size to nearly 1,700 football fields or four square miles.

Microscopic View of Mycelium for Agaricus bisporus:
Microscopic View of Mycelium for Agaricus bisporus
By Rob Hille via Wikimedia Commons

While the behemoth mushroom hasn’t been excavated, scientists have confirmed that all sightings of honey mushrooms in the area do belong to the same fungus. Samples of mycelium were taken from the roots of sited mushrooms and were genetically and physically tested in the lab.

This research shows that mushroom bodies possess a unique crosslink signature, which prevents them from parasitizing each other. When strands from different bodies intersect then, nothing happens. But when strands from the same body connect, they fuse together because they recognize themselves. That’s why the Oregon fungus became such a giant mass.


7)  Just Breathe
Despite being a hardy dietary staple, fresh mushrooms do not have a long shelf life. The fungi only last a couple days in the store before they become moldy and spoiled.

However, you may be able to extend the shelf life with certain storage methods. For example, if you can cook them right away you can store mushrooms that have been thoroughly dried in a plain, brown bag in the refrigerator. The bag, which allows the mushrooms to breathe, slows the rate of decomposition.

mushroom storage in brown paper bag in refrigerator

Or, you can also can, pickle or dry mushrooms as well. Use a food-safe desiccant for drying the fungus. For other kinds of preservation and preparation, brining is recommended. Because mushrooms contain no sodium, you have to use a curing or preserving agent in order to keep them fresh.

Pickled Mushrooms - Great for Enjoying Benefits of Fresh Mushrooms Just About Anytime!
Pickled Mushrooms - Great for Enjoying Benefits of Fresh Mushrooms Just About Anytime!

Like any produce, mushrooms are best used when they’ve just been purchased. So, in order to enjoy their flavor and use them in cooking, it’s best to buy mushrooms just before you plan to use them. Or, if you are hunting mushrooms in the wild, only pick as many as you’ll immediately need.


6)  Fairy Rings
Fairy rings are associated with much of the magic and fairly lore of the mushroom fungus. The rings, also known as pixie rings, can grow as big as 30 feet across. The space in the middle of the circular configurations is said to be the area where fairies or elves make mischief and dance.

Fairy Ring Among Vibrant Fall Leaves:
Fairy Ring Among Vibrant Fall Leaves

Some people have a superstitious discomfort about fairy rings, as they see them as representing the presence of fairy folk who don’t always deal fairly with humans.

Others see the rings as an inconvenience, as the rings can make a lush green yard look rather unsightly. After the mushrooms die, they leave bare spots in the grass. (Maybe the fairy folk aren’t being so nice after all.)

Clouded Agaric Fungi Fairy Path or Ring:
Clouded Agaric Fungi Fairy Path or Ring

Still, many people welcome fairy rings as imaginative signs of magic or as manifestations of the beauty and wonder of nature. If you are in this group, you might also want to visit the site of Stonehenge. Some of the oldest fairy ring colonies exist in this location – many of which go back as far 700 years. Some of the colonies are so large, it is easier to view them by plane than up-close.


5)  Out of this World
The spores of many mushrooms can germinate under harsh conditions for up to several decades. In fact, the seeds are able to withstand environmental extremes much better than the fungus itself.

Baby Mushrooms:
Baby Mushrooms
By calliope via Wikimedia Commons

However, mushroom fungus is resilient too, and is one of the first kinds of life that will grow back after a forest fire. Because they feed on dead organic matter, the fungi assist in digesting and clearing away the charred remains and ash of a damaged woodland.

Keratin is Most of the Fibrous Material that Makes up Feathers:
Keratin is Most of the Fibrous Material that Makes up Feathers

The spores are resilient because their cell walls are made of durable and strong cross-linked polymers. Also, one of the substances that make up a spore is chitin, which is one of the hardest natural substances on earth. A derivative of glucose, the durable polysaccharide is also found in the shells of crustaceans such as lobsters and clams. Chitin is similar in structure and function to keratin, the strong protein that is found in human hair and nails, and even mammalian horns.


4)  Immortality
Traditional Chinese medicine prizes several varieties of mushrooms for their nutritional and metaphysical attributes. One of the most commonly prescribed fungi is the lingzhi, a woody mushroom which is consumed to promote health, longevity, and immune system functioning. This mushroom is more commonly referred to in America as Reishi mushrooms. The mushroom itself is nicknamed the “Immortality Mushroom,” because it was once thought to be a key ingredient in obtaining everlasting life on earth.

The Lingzhi or Reishi Mushroom - Ganoderma lucidum:
The Lingzhi or Reishi Mushroom - Ganoderma lucidum
By Eric Steinert via Wikimedia Commons

Objective Western scientific validation of many of the above claims was lacking for many years. However, because of the possible toxic side effects associated with ingestion of reishi, studies on the “Immortality Mushroom” were undertaken to test the premises for the claims. As a result, further studies were conducted on the efficacy and possible dangers associated with the oft-prescribed medicinal aid.

One study found that the mushroom had a high antioxidant impact on plasma when it was used regularly. The research also demonstrated an improved CHD biomarker profile. Subsequent studies did not find changes in the CHD biomarkers — indicators of impending heart disease — but did find the presence of antioxidant activity, not just in the bloodstream but in the urine as well. Therefore, the effect of using the mushroom for supplementation is one that is systemic, or which is healthful to the whole body.

Developing Lingzhi or Reishi Mushroom:
Developing Lingzhi or Reishi Mushroom
By Apple2000 via Wikimedia Commons

It was also found that the health of test subjects improved, and no toxicity was observed – all which confirms that the mushroom conveys the properties that help people live healthful and longer lives. The fungus may not result in immortality, but it does promote longevity.


3)  Music to the Ears
Many people, even individuals outside the music world, recognize that the name “Stradivarius.” While the strings and bow of a violin contribute to the overall quality of sound, Stradivarius violins combine perfect craftsmanship with a type of wood that resonates quality harmonies and tones.

Models from the 1700s are considered the ultimate example in workmanship as the wood is properly aged and softened to smooth perfection.

It might be possible, however, to capture that same sound with a lesser violin, courtesy of some industrious fungi — two different species, in fact. The pathogenic arboreal fungi Physisporinus vitreus and Xylaria are responsible for thinning the cell walls of a Norway spruce - the wood used in the manufacture of a violin’s top plate.

Fungus Physisporinus vitreus:
Fungus Physisporinus vitreus
By Gerhard Koller via Wikimedia Commons

This natural thinning process leads to a louder resonance as it encourages freer movement with less volume or weight. Not only that, the fungi also work to dampen other kinds of wood used for violins and stringed instruments, tempering and reducing the high, sharp sounds and irritating feedback.

Xlaryia longpipes:
Xlaryia longpipes
By Strobilomyces via Wikimedia Commons


2)  Carnivores
Many types of mushrooms, like the oyster mushroom, are opportunists. They don’t need composted soil to grow, but can utilize a variety of cellulosic products – all the way from trees to lumber to paper. You can cultivate these fungi in your own basement too with a cotton bag full of hemp. Besides the substrates in which they grow, these mushrooms may also be opportunistic in another, more sinister, sense.

Oyster Mushroom:
Oyster Mushroom
By Shawn Baker via Wikimedia Commons

Cultivated mushrooms are often plagued by small worms called nematodes, which can cause a great deal of damage to crops.

However, mushroom farmers noticed that oyster mushrooms never were affected by the worms. After careful observation and research, they concluded that oyster mushrooms are carnivorous — much like such insect-eating plants as the sundew and Venus flytrap.

Oyster mushrooms and similar species that participate in this behavior often do so to live in a low nitrogen environment. In turn, this facility enables them to thrive in places where other organisms cannot grow. However, loop snares of mycelium and carefully constructed fungal traps are more than an ingenious adaptation.

Researchers hope to exploit the ability of the fungi to consume nematodes to create nontoxic, organic pesticides that will annihilate microscopic pestilence. The oyster mushroom has been found to ingest bacteria and possesses antimicrobial properties for what it doesn’t consume. Therefore, using the mushroom to eradicate pests is a solution that, in all probability, may be realized.


1)  Glow-in-the-Dark
Although bioengineered zebra fish and phosphorescent plastic stars are known to cast a glow in the dark, this type of process actually began in nature - not in the modern marketplace. Many of the 71 species of bioluminescent mushrooms have been known to glow since antiquity. Aristotle even wrote about this phenomenon.

In many folk traditions, glowing mycelia infested trees, and were believed to possess “faerie fire” or “foxfire.” Some of the trees were believed to feature magical properties as well, which could either be good or bad. Tribes in Micronesia also used glowing fungi for war paint and for headdresses during ceremonies and rituals.

The idea of bioluminescence sounds rather complicated. However, it’s really a simple process. Two or more chemicals in the body of a glowing organism come together and combine after which a chemical reaction ensues. In turn, atomic specks of light, called photons, create the resulting glow.

The Saprobe Panellus Stipticus Demonstrating Bioluminescence:
The Saprobe Panellus Stipticus Demonstrating Bioluminescence

While some bioluminescent creatures must interact, glow-in-the-dark mushrooms do not. Therefore, theories abound as to why the mushrooms leave off their gleam.

Scientists suggest that mushrooms glow in order to attract arthropods who aid in the transmission of spores, or that the glowing may ward off photophobic parasites that live in the soil.

Mycena chlorophos:
Mycena chlorophos
By self via Wikimedia Commons

Other researchers theorize that bioluminescence is a by-product of a process that permits the mushrooms to break down and digest lignin — a very tough, common material in trees. Whatever the reason, the effect the glow produces can be as eerie as it is fascinating.


Conclusion
Mushrooms exist in the human psyche beyond their simple, organic lives. They have become symbols of death, the afterlife, immortality, decay, magic, and the pragmatism of nature.

Whether you eat mushrooms or use them for medicinal purposes, they are part of a global culture. The organisms pop up in mythology and lore as much as they sprout up on dead and rotting logs after a summer rain.

The fungi, which are imperceptible to most people, are amazing organisms to observe. They can even cause you to develop an interest in mycology. The many species of mushrooms make plant-eating fungi an ongoing pastime and vocation for mushroom hunters and scientists alike.



 

 

 

 

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