Mycelium: solving a mushroom mystery

Mushrooms have historically been associated with magic, partly due to many species having hallucinogenic properties, but also because mushrooms seemingly appear out of the ground from no obvious source. One day there’s nothing, the next a tiny forest of mushrooms has materialized. This has always fascinated me, and I’d like to share the reason behind it for those who don’t already know.

The part of the fungus we can see is called the “fruiting body” and it can come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. However, the visible part of the mushroom is just the tip of the iceberg. Like plants, mushrooms have a root system (called mycelium) which spreads through the soil. But mushrooms don’t play by the same rules as plants. Imagine an apple tree that is upside-down underground, and the only parts that pop up above ground, are the apples. Now imagine that this tree can grow up to four square miles in size and you have an idea of the size of the mycelium network. It’s thought that some of the largest and oldest organisms on earth, are fungi.

 

Scarlet Elf Caps at the Falls of Clyde. Despite its rather alarming appearance, this mushroom is edible (though we’d only recommend foraging to those who really know their stuff.) Photos © Becca Wilson

 

Mycelium allow mushrooms to have a close relationship with plants, which is key to their survival. As you may already know, fungus breaks down dead or dying matter and absorbs its nutrients. The thread-like mycelium will then grow very close to the roots of plants; allowing them to trade their nutrients for energy from photosynthesis.

 

Turkey Tail fungus on the stump of a dead tree. Mushrooms don’t generally kill trees, however they will take advantage of a damaged or diseased tree, thus speeding up the process. Photos © Becca Wilson

 

Though it’s not really the best time of year to go out looking for fungi, there are still a few dotted around here at the Falls of Clyde. Saying that, you can guarantee that there will be tonnes of mycelium buried underground, ready to spring up at a moment’s notice when the time is right.

 

Becca Wilson – Falls of Clyde Seasonal Ranger

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Preface

Mushrooms have historically been associated with magic, partly due to many species having hallucinogenic properties, but also because mushrooms seemingly appear out of the ground from no obvious source. One …

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