The fungus among us

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-113276663912553.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘Homeowners may be surprised when Phallus Impudicus suddenly appears on the lawn or in the garden.’);

Fungi are among the most interesting living organisms that make up the complex web of life found on Earth. For many years, fungi were classified within the Plant Kingdom, but about 50 years ago, biologists decided they were so different from others they should be assigned a kingdom of their own. Although some fungi, including the yeasts, consist of only one cell, the majority are multicellar without cell walls (coenocytic). The most dramatic difference between fungi and true plants is their heterotrophic mode of nutrition. This means they are unable to manufacture their food, which is similar to the animal mode of nutrition. Plants, on the other hand, are autotrophic and make their own food via the process of photosynthesis.

Of the many types of fungi, most individuals are more familiar with mushrooms. Of the many types of mushrooms, the commercially produced varieties, or the toadstools that sometimes appear overnight in our yards, are the best known.

However, mushrooms come in a variety of shapes and forms, some of which are quite bizarre. The following describes a few of the more unusual ones that may be encountered in the Rock River Valley.

Stinkhorns: The scientific name of this one is Phallus impugicus due to the fact to some, it resembles a portion of the male anatomy. The common name refers to the horrible smell the mature stinkhorn emits from a sticky substance that covers its cap. Though the smell is repulsive to us, it is attractive to flies. They feed on the sticky material, and the spores of the stinkhorn adhere to the insect’s feet and are transported to new locations for propagation. Stinkhorns are edible if one can refrain from gagging.

Puffballs: Some puffballs are about the size of ping-pong balls, but others grow to the size of a volleyball or basketball. They are most abundant in late summer and autumn when they are plump with moisture. They are to be found in parks and woodlots, and on the lawn or in the field. In my opinion, puffballs are the most delightfully edible of all the mushrooms, if they are prepared when young and tender and the inside is a white mass. When they mature, millions of reproductive spores are produced on the inside, producing a brown powder, and are dispersed by the wind. Fortunately, the mortality rate of the spores is very high, or the Earth would be covered with puffballs.

Puffballs can be sliced into steak-like portions and when slowly sautéed in butter, are a culinary delight. I can personally vouch for the taste of sautéed puffball steaks, a gourmand’s true gastronomical treasure.

Hen of the Woods: When autumn rains have brought life to the woods, this is one of the largest mushrooms and is frequently found on rotted logs or stumps. I have no idea how the name “hen” was given to this fungus, as it in no way resembles a chicken. It is sometimes called the Leafy Polysporus, which to my eyes is more appropriate. It is actually a nondescript mass of leaf-shaped parts attached to a solid, white core. The upper parts of the “leaves” are a light brown in color, and the undersides are pure white. The Hen is very edible, and is a favorite of many mushroom hunters. A portion of the structure may be cut away for use as a meal, and the remainder allowed to continue growing. They are tender when young, but tough when old.

Jack ’O’ Lantern: As the name implies, this mushroom is colored like a pumpkin, though it does not resemble one in shape. It comes in a variety of forms, and is another fungus that flourishes in autumn. This one is poisonous, but not deadly. It can, however, cause enough intestinal distress that it should be avoided as food. In addition to having the coloration of a pumpkin, the jack-o’-lantern has the peculiar quality of glowing in the dark, giving it more kinship to the traditions of Halloween. It was believed in bygone days that the Jack-’O‘-Lantern mushroom was supernatural, and it was associated with the gadding about of witches, spirits, and spooks.

Though some mushrooms are prized for the table, their greatest contribution to mankind is their function in the ecosystem by acting as the disposers of dead organic matter.

In southeastern Pennsylvania, mushrooms are grown commercially in large light-tight barns. The growing medium is composed largely of sterilized cow manure, upon which the mushrooms thrive. If one is driving through that area on a warm summer day, I strongly advise that the windows of the car be closed tightly.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

From the Nov. 23-29, 2005, issue

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