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  • Writer's picturewonkyfrog

Fungi: Where to Begin

plural noun: fungi

any of a group of spore-producing organisms feeding on organic matter, including moulds, yeast, mushrooms, and toadstools.

The following info is lifted from Canada’s Ministry of Forest and Range What is a

A mushroom is the reproductive structure produced by some fungi. It is

somewhat like the fruit of a plant, except that the "seeds" it produces

are in fact millions of microscopic spores that form in the gills or

pores underneath the mushroom's cap. The spores blow away into

the wind, or are spread by other means, such as animal feeding. If

they land on a suitable substrate (such as wood or soil) spores will

germinate to form a network of microscopic rooting threads

(mycelium) which penetrate into their new food source. Unlike the

mushroom, which pops up then passes away quickly, the mycelium

persists, often for many years, extracting nutrients and sending up its

annual crop of mushrooms.

Mushrooms are fungi. They belong in a kingdom of their own,

separate from plants and animals. Fungi differ from plants and

animals in the way they obtain their nutrients. Generally, plants make

their food using the sun's energy (photosynthesis), while animals eat,

then internally digest, their food. Fungi do neither: their mycelium

grows into or around the food source, secretes enzymes that digest

the food externally, and the mycelium then absorbs the digested

nutrients. There are exceptions to these generalizations; some

organisms are placed into their respective kingdoms based on

characteristics other than their feeding habits.

Recyclers/Decomposers – saprophytic fungi

Some mushrooms are capable of digesting wood, breaking it

down into the primary components of forest soils. They also decay

other dead plant and animal matter. A forest in which nothing

rotted would soon be choked with accumulating dead leaves and

woody material, and starved for essential minerals and other

nutrients bound up in the undecomposed debris.

Tree-Helpers/Mutalists - Mycorrhizal Fungi “Myco” –“rhiza” literally

means “fungus” – “root”

Many mushrooms formpartnerships with roots of living trees, and the

resulting fungus-root is called a mycorrhiza. The mushroom's mycelium

weaves itself around the root and actually alters the shape of the root.

The mushroom absorbs water and minerals for the tree, but in return

the tree gives the mushroom nutrients, too. Since both partners benefit

from each other, their alliance is considered a symbiotic relationship.

Mycorrhizal mushrooms are often seen under trees, growing in lines or

rings, following the progress of root growth under the earth.

+ Predatory fungi (actively capture their prey with their hyphae) and Parasitic

Fungi (they feed on living organisms without killing them, at least for a while eg,


What to look for/How to identify/Terminology

SUBSTRATE - Observe whether the mushroom is growing in soil, leaf litter, on wood, in

dung? Whatever it’s growing on (which can be hard to tell exactly ) is called ‘substrate’

HABITAT - What is the habitat? Pine forest, grassland, oak forest, on Moors etc – Take

note as lots of fungi form mycorrhizal relationships with their hosts

HOW IS IT GROWING? On its own (singularly), with many others (trooping), in a tuft

(growing from a single point) or in a ring?

COLOUR -Does the flesh change colour when oxidises eg. cut

TEXTURE- What is the texture? Slimey? Does it produce milky liquid when cut?

SMELL- Does the mushroom have a particular smell (or taste if you are confident in doing a

spit test. Best to only do if you are 100% sure its not a poisonous mushroom)

SHAPE OF THE CAP-Bell shaped, flat, convex, etc

LOOK UNDER THE CAP- are there are gills or tubes or teeth/spines, or veins? Do the

gills go all the way to the edge of the cap or only halfway before connecting with others? As

you progress you will want to cut the cap and make a cross section so you can identify how

the gills attach to the stem

STEM/STIPE- is it reticulated (ridges), is there colour differentiation, is there a ring

(annulus) around the stem? Is the stem hollow, does it have a small or large bulb at the

bottom, does it have a volva (cup at the base of the stem- remanent of the universal veil

as the mushroom grew out of the egg/sack)

VEIL – are there remnants of a partial veil, what texture is it?, is the veil still intact, is it a

cobweby veil (cortina), remnants of a universal veil e.g. the white bits on a fly agaric cap

See link for tips and visuals on fungi terminology for identification Mushroom Identification – The Mushroom Diary – UK Wild Mushroom Hunting Blog

Spore Print

At home make a spore print by placing just the cap on black paper, covered with a glass and

leaving the spores for 2-3 hours. The spores will drop and leave a print on the paper.

Different coloured spores help you identify.


Don’t collect in a plastic bag as the humidity will degrade your specimens. Basket works


Don’t eat anything you can’t identify 100%


Buy yourself a little knife to take into the field with you so you can neatly cut your fungi at the base of the stem

You might want to buy a hand lens so you can see the details of your fungi better The NHBS

You might want to progress to using a key to identify fungi

A few suggested and recommended books are Fungi of Temperate Europe Vol.1 and 2. By

Thomas Laessoe and Jens H. Peterson. + First Steps in Mushroom identification by Archie

Mc Adam

Identifying by group - It can be helpful to recognise fungi visually by group

Fungi can begin to be identified by how the spores are produced and dispersed- the

main groups are Basidiomycetes and Ascomycetes. In the Basidiomycetes, the

spores are produced externally, on the end of specialised cells

called basidia.

In Ascomycetes, spores are produced internally, inside a sac called

an ascus- and the spores burst out hence their name ‘Spore shooters’

Common fungal groups – Basidiomycetes= Stinkhorn, Earthballs, Puffballs,

Birds nest, Polypore, crust, jelly fungi (on wood), coral, club, tooth/spine,

gilled fungi, boletes, false truffles

Common fungal groups -Ascomycetes = Cup and flask fungi eg. Morels,

and true truffles

This blog post was written and curated by Alice von Kohler

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