The Mysterious Mushroom

By Jan Brick
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Placeholder image Wild or commercially grown, mushrooms are a fascinating plant life. Packed with antioxidants, mushrooms will lend an earthy, interesting flavor to everyday menus.

Many of us are intrigued by the odd growths, shapes, and fungal arrangements that appear haphazardly around our yards, lawns, trees, and garden beds. Over time, many fanciful explanations have been given for these phenomena, such as the notion that they are the result of fairies dancing in rings, sowing the seeds for future use as their homes.

  Mushrooms are the visible formations of certain types of fungi, although the inedible and poisonous versions should be called toadstools to avoid confusion (especially for children). While these fungal fruiting structures differ in size, shape and color, the caps and stems are the main assembly, and microscopic pores form under the caps.

  Most mushrooms feed on decaying organic matter thus the “rings” they form around food sources. The growths will cease to appear once the food source is consumed. Removing and discarding them is recommended to avoid any incidence of poisoning of pets or children. 

  While only about 50,000 species have been described in North America, the fungus kingdom is exceptionally diverse, and scientists believe that millions may exist that are not yet identified. Most fungi in lawns are beneficial since they decompose organic matter, releasing nutrients that are essential to plant growth. As the fungi break down the organic matter, the nutrients released provide essential fodder for lawns, garden plants, shrubs, trees, and flowering plants.

  Mushrooms are usually harmless to grasses, but some consider them unsightly or want to eliminate them because small children or pets may play in the area. Remove toadstools by picking them out of the wood, trees or lawn patches as they appear and discard. The use of a fungicide is not recommended as the application of these products require multiple treatments at proper intervals over long periods of time.

  Fungi are a fundamental ingredient of all fertile soil. Fortunately, it is nearly impossible to eradicate them. Therefore, when they pop up and fruit in your yard, remember, they are a basic part of the life cycle. The base structures of the mushroom are microscopic, but when nature calls, they come together to form beautiful, complex patterns and configurations.

  “Mushrooms are among the many un-numbered miracles of nature” so enjoy their short-lived appearance. These fruiting constructions can survive for years producing when conditions are most favorable such as periods of prolonged wet weather.

  Mushrooms display themselves in many shapes, sizes and forms with interesting and clever descriptive names that illustrate their diversity. Fairy Ring fungi present themselves in circular or semi-circular rings that can range in size from one inch up to twelve inches or more in diameter.

  Placeholder image Inky Cap mushrooms are a common yet distinctive group and so named because the cap itself decomposes into a dark liquid resembling ink shortly after its emergence. Puffball fungi are named for the clouds of dust-like pores that are emitted when the mature body bursts. True puffballs do not have a visible stalk or stem.

  Bird's nest mushrooms fruiting bodies resemble tiny egg-filled nests. The stinkhorn mushroom is commonly seen in the winter months, growing in piles of mulch or loose organic matter, resembling a cluster of red/orange/brown/gray mottled eggs within the mulch. 

Edible Mushrooms

Mushroom hunting can be dangerous. Learn from an expert. If in doubt, throw them out  

  Placeholder imageMorel- harvest in spring, distinctive “honeycomb” cap, deeply wrinkled, yellow-gray in color, strong taste, best cooked in butter with leeks.

Chanterelle- grow in clumps in late summer and early fall, yellow or golden in color, funnel-shaped, meaty, may smell fruity, woody or earthy. Chanterelles have a mild peppery taste. Cook with butter, wine, and cream.

Fairy Ring- harvest in summer and fall, small mushrooms that grow in a ring or arc, nipple-like cap in a pale tan or white color, remove stem and rinse in cold water, use in more basic recipes to enjoy their delicate flavor.

Hedgehog- harvest in summer and fall, defining characteristics include spines or teeth on the undersides of the cap and pale orangey tan in color, crunchy sweet nutty taste.

Shaggy Mane / Lawyer’s Wig- June through November (only edible when immature), a shaggy cap droops over the stem when young and ready for consumption, a good addition to soups. Once the gills turn black they are past their time.

Hen of the Wood- perennial that appears in the same place yearly in late summer and early fall for short periods of time, tuber-like in large coral like clumps, caps are grayish brown and are curled or spoon-like. Sauté in butter or olive oil.

Black Trumpet- prefer damp and dark areas for good growth in summer and fall (mainly in leaf litter which can make them difficult to see), dark brown, black, or gray in color in a trumpet shape with smooth texture overall. Rich smoky flavor, delicious sautéed with garlic and oil.

Mushroom Facts

A single Portobello mushroom contains more potassium than a banana.

Mushrooms are 90% water.

Mushrooms are known as the “meat” of the vegetable world.

One genus of mushrooms tastes like fried chicken (hen of the wood).

Long before trees overtook the land, earth was covered by giant mushrooms.

A 2,400-year-old giant “honey mushroom” in Oregon covers 2,200 acres and is thought to be the largest living organism on the planet.

A three-pound white truffle mushroom once sold for $330,000.

Shitake mushrooms produce several crops when grown on sawdust or grain. When grown on logs, fresh shitake mushrooms will develop every five weeks for four to six years.

Placeholder imageA variety of mushroom-growing kits are available online or at specialty garden nurseries. 

Medicinal Properties of the Mushroom

Reduces systemic inflammation in muscles and bones, gastrointestinal, and immune systems.

Helps to lower cholesterol.

A rich source of Vitamin D, copper and zinc.

Regulates hormone and insulin production to prevent diabetes.

Increases amounts of hemoglobin that carries oxygen through the body.