I was walking this morning through the nearby woods on a beautiful chilly fall day. My eyes are normally adjusted to see birds, but since the leaves are gone now, the mushrooms growing on hardwood really stand out. Mushrooms have always fascinated me. My father took me mushroom hunting when I was a child back home in my native Switzerland until the Chernobyl disaster happened in 1986.
Although the reactor explosion happened 920 miles northeast from my home, European governments issued a safety warning in regard to the consumption of wild mushroom for years, out of fear that they could be contaminated. Thirty years later, caesium-137 is still being found in mushrooms and wild animals that eat them. Why for so long?
Mushrooms are very strange living organisms. They’re neither plant nor animal. They don’t depend on sunlight, therefore don’t contain chlorophyll. What we see as the classic mushroom in the field is the fruiting body the of fungi (the apple of the tree). It uses spores (the apple seeds) to disseminate…a lot of them. An average-size giant puffball (Calvatia gigantea) has 7 billion spores! Without getting too technical, fungi are saprophytes: living on/from dead or decaying matter. They are our recyclers, decomposing the leaves and therefore helping the soil stay nourished. Without them, trees and other plants we need for the creation of oxygen would not be very successful.
The next time you see a mushroom, take a deep breath and think about it. The wonderful, weird world of mushrooms is fascinating for many reasons. We’ll start with a couple more facts, then come spring we’ll go out and hunt and cook some of these morsels from nature.
- Fungi are everywhere
- We inhale up to 200,000 spores a day
- They make up 25% of the biomass of the Earth
- Only 5% have been identified
- They’re the biggest living organism on Earth
- They make the best medicines and spread the worst plagues
- They decompose nearly everything, including petroleum
- They’re awesome. Some of them are super tasty. And a few of them will kill you.