A Small Ode to Mushrooms
Written by Alanna Rossi, Illustrations by Jaclyn Simon
When I think about mushrooms my mind conjures a number of different images. I picture the power-up mushrooms in Super Mario Brothers, which offer aid in your hero’s journey to save Princess Peach (yet again). I think of Frodo and Sam, and that fateful shortcut they took while on their way out of the Shire. Thinking about mushrooms also makes me hungry, because they are delicious to eat!
So, what are mushrooms exactly? I’m sure we all have an image in our mind of what a mushroom looks like to us. Maybe it’s the red toadstool with the white spots on it (Amanita muscaria), or a Chanterelle or Oyster Mushroom. Doesn’t matter what kind of mushroom it is, they all fall under the category of fungi. Fungi are special in the sense that they do not obtain food or nutrients in the same way that plants or animals do. For example, plants use photosynthesis and harness the sun for energy, while fungi’s mycelium (the network of fungal threads or hyphae that grow underground) will grow near a food source and then secrete a digestive enzyme which allows it to digest the food externally at which point the nutrients are then absorbed. Pretty gnarly stuff. Fungi are practically everywhere. Ever go for a walk in the woods? Next time, take a good look around. You’ll start seeing them everywhere once you start looking for them.
It would be foolish to underestimate the role fungi play in our ecosystem. They are excellent decomposers and recyclers, feeding off dead or decaying organic material and then releasing nitrogen and phosphorus into the air. Without them, the food chain would have a missing link that could have huge impacts on the environment. Not all relationships are healthy though. Shelf Fungi (aptly named because they look like shelves on trees) for example, typically grows on decaying trees, but will occasionally grow on a healthy tree, acting like a parasite which usually sends the tree to an early grave. Spooky.
Let’s talk about fungus as a food source. Mushrooms come in an array of varieties, some edible, some not (be careful if you’re foraging!) The edible ones are delicious and all unique in their own way. Different cultures have their own ways of preparing mushrooms, but there is one particular fungi that enjoys being put up on a pedestal. The truffle. Truffles, the bougiest of the fungi family, are considered one of the more rare varieties of fungi and can sell for some serious cash. There are even special breeds of pigs that can sniff them out and even dogs can be trained to track them down. Considered indulgent, they are delicious shaved on top of pasta or even pizza and can be made into oil to drizzle atop of all your meals.
I could discuss mushrooms and fungus and why I think they’re great all day, but I have things to do! I encourage you to do some of your own research. Learn about the types of fungus in your area so that on your next sojourn into the woods you can keep an eye out for them. Maybe you’ll learn something really interesting to share with your friends or find a new recipe to try out. There are some truly fantastic books out there about fungus (yes, really!) but one I have to recommend is ‘Entangled Life’ by Merlin Sheldrake (featured on our Fall To Do List!) It’s a joy to read and is insightful as hell. Nobody would be able to tell you that your reading list isn’t eclectic.