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Naturespeak: Are all fungi mushrooms?

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All mushrooms are fungi, but not all fungi are mushrooms.

Most nature lovers are familiar with fungi that produce relatively large, showy reproductive structures such as mushrooms, truffles, puffballs, shelf, and cup fungi, but they are less than one per cent of the described species. Most fungi produce reproductive structures not visible to the naked eye and include yeast in bread, fermenters in wine, and sources of antibiotics. Here are some other fun fungal facts.

The most familiar kind of mushroom has a cap with gills (radiating blades) on its underside. Millions of microscopic spores (the seeds of a mushroom) are released from the gills and dispersed by air currents. Only a small percentage of spores land in a favourable environment, where they grow to form new fungi.

Fungi are in their own kingdom, separate from the plant kingdom and animal kingdom. Although it might surprise you to know that fungi are more like animals (us!) than plants. Neither fungi nor animals have chlorophyll and therefore are unable to create energy directly from sunlight.

Mushrooms, or more exactly the fungi that produce them, are a vital part of our environment in Whistler and the world. The first vital role they play are as decomposers. To feed themselves, fungi have evolved enzymes for digesting dead plant and animal materials such as insect exoskeletons, hair, skin, horn, feathers and wood.

Just by eating, fungi are replenishing the soil by breaking down complex organic matter into simpler, reusable compounds. Without fungi working as decomposers, the ecosystem would not be able to recycle matter and wastes would build up. The ecosystem would collapse.

The second vital role they play is to keep our trees healthy. Mycorrhizal fungi form a mutually beneficial relationship with the roots of trees in a forest—many trees will not grow without them. Since fungi can't produce their own food some fungi tap into roots of trees and other plants.

The trees provide these fungi carbon-based food while the fungal network provides trees with essential access to nutrients and water.

The fungus transport food from trees between themselves, fungus to fungus, but fungi can also connect trees together. Studies have found that big old trees are hubs for this massive network that pretty much connects all the trees in the forest. Scientists have shown that the underground network can shuttle carbon-based food from a big tree to surrounding trees, and that ones that benefit the most are the youngest, most vulnerable trees. They're really being nurtured and grown up as a community—a family almost. (Watch Nature's Internet by Susan Simard.)

The fall is the ideal time to develop a passion for local fungi. Please join us for Fungus Among Us where we celebrate everything weird, wild and wonderful about fungi!

Tickets are available online at WhistlerNaturalists.ca. All events are at (or start at) Myrtle Philip Community School in Whistler. Make sure your check out Talks by Gurus on Friday, Oct. 12 at 7:30 p.m., then on Saturday, Oct. 13 enjoy Walks with Gurus (8:30 a.m.), gourmet tasting (12:30 p.m.), and check out the mushroom display at 2:30 p.m.

For more details please go to WhistlerNaturalists.ca.

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