Fun Facts: Mushrooms, Mushrooms Everywhere!

You don’t have to go far from home to see amazing mushrooms in Edmonton, especially in spring and autumn after it has rained!

Mushrooms in Edmonton. Photos by Mo Sellman.

 

And it’s no surprise to learn that with such a huge diversity of mushrooms in Alberta there are too many species to count! But what are mushrooms? And why do they appear in damp conditions?

A mushroom is the smaller, above ground part of a much bigger structure (known as a fungus). Below ground, it grows as a thread-like network (called mycelium) that seeks out water and nutrients. When conditions are perfect (very wet) the mushroom grows out of the ground and produces spores. Spores are like seeds, but they are too small to see with the naked eye. They are found on the underside of the mushroom on thin sheets called gills.

  The gills on the underside of a mushroom. Photo by Mo Sellman.

The gills on the underside of a mushroom. Photo by Mo Sellman.

 

Spores can be spread by wind, rain, animals, and even insects. In puffball mushrooms, spores explode out of the mushroom in a cloud! Jack-o-lantern mushrooms glow in the dark to attract insects! They are called jack-o-lantern mushrooms because they are orange during the day and light up at night. It is believed pioneers used them as a guide in dark forests. 

The jack-o-lantern mushroom (Omphalotus olearius). Left: Orange colour during day; right: glowing in the dark. Photo by Thomas Schoch (left) and Noah Siegel (right) via Wikimedia Commons

But beware! Some mushrooms contain toxins that cause illness and sometimes even death in humans. 

Mushrooms are a very important part of the ecosystem. The underground network of mycelium breaks down dead logs and leaves (and other dead organic matter) releasing nutrients into the environment that would otherwise be trapped. When the nutrients are free in the environment, plants can use them to grow. 

The network of mycelium is very large, so is really good at finding water and nutrients. Often the mycelium is linked to tree roots, and will send nutrients and water to the trees to help them survive. Many trees and plants can be connected by mycelium allowing them to share nutrients and communicate with each other. 

Mushrooms are really quite spectacular and have fascinated humans for centuries. In the past, circles of mushrooms (like the one below) were explained by many stories. 

 Woodland fairy circle. Photo: Sporulator at Mushroom Observer via  Wikimedia Commons

Woodland fairy circle. Photo: Sporulator at Mushroom Observer via Wikimedia Commons

 

In English folklore it was called a fairy ring. It was believed to be where fairies danced. When the fairies were tired from all their dancing they would use the mushrooms as seats. Now we know the ring of mushrooms doesn’t appear by magic, but instead occurs when the underground network of mycelium grows in the shape of a circle. There are many more enjoyable folklore stories about these circles. Read more about mushroom folklore here. 

So look out for those unusual, interesting and important mushrooms poking up out of the ground, and remember there is a lot more happening underneath in the soil that we don’t see! 

Written by Mo Sellman, EALT Volunteer