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There's a Fungus Among Us
ABOUT THIS ISSUE
Published by: The Kansas State Teachers College of Emporia
Prepared and Issued by: The Department of Biology,
with the cooperation of the Division of Education
Editor: Robert J. Boles
Editorial Committee: James S. Wilson, Robert F. Clarke, Gilbert A. Leisman, Harold Durst
Exofficio: Dr. Edwin B. Kurtz, Head, Dept. of Biology
Online edition by: Terri Weast
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There's a Fungus Among Us
by Robert J. Boles
Almost everyone has observed mushrooms growing in the woods, or has heard people arguing how to tell a
mushroom from a toadstool, or ways to tell a poisonous mushroom from an edible one. Mushrooms belong to the great group of plants called the fungi. Fungi come in all shapes and colors and sizes, and there may actually be more different kinds than there are kinds of flowering plants. They include not only the mushrooms, but also the molds, mildews, rusts, smuts, and both beneficial and harmful bacteria. This issue of The Kansas School Naturalist will discuss some of the important fungi, with most of the emphasis upon the more familiar mushrooms.
The Parts of a Fungus
A fungus starts from a tiny, microscopic bit of protoplasm called a spore. Even under the powerful magnification of a miscroscope a spore doesn't look very large. However, if such a spore falls upon suitable food, in a dark, warm, moist place, it will start to grow into a fungus plant. The number of spores a mushroom may produce may literally number in the multiplied millions!
Tiny transparent or whitish threads, called hyphae, will grow out and extend through the organic matter upon which the fungus is growing. All of the hyphae are collectively referred to as the mycelium, or the body of the fungus. This mycelium may grow for weeks, months, or even years before the part referred to as the "mushroom" is produced. Once established, a mycelium may persist for years or even centuries.
When the proper time has arrived, little "bumps" or enlargements will appear along the mycelial threads, or hyphae. Such a swelling will increase in size until it projects above the soil or wood in which it started to grow. This "knob" will become the familiar "mushroom," or spore-bearing structure. Because much of the increase in size of the fruiting body is due to the absorption of moisture, mushrooms seem to literally "pop above ground" right after a summer's rain. The term "mushroom growth" is sometimes applied to situations such as a very rapidly growing area of a city.
One or the most commonly-seen fungi is the gilled mushroom. Such a mushroom looks so mething like an
umbrella, or a little stool upon which one or the toads of the woods might perch, as suggested by the common name "toadstool." The umbrella-like part is referred to as the cap. The radiating tissues on the underside of the cap are called gills. This structure grows on the end of a fleshy stalk.
On some mushrooms a ring of tissue remains around the stalk below the cap after the cap has opened. This ring of tissue is called the veil. The presence of such a veil is used as one of the identifying features of some of the very poisonous Amanita mushrooms.
You may have heard people say, "mushrooms are edible, toad stools are poisonous." Actually, some of the
mushrooms shaped like an umbrella are quite edible, and some of those without the umbrella - or stool-like shape are inedible, if not poisonous.
Where Did the Names Mushroom and Toadstool Come From?
The name mushroom probably came from the word "Mousseron," a French word derived from "Mousse," or moss. Both moss and fungi require damp places in which to grow, but mosses, unlike the fungi, contain chlorophyll, and can make their own food from the inorganic nutrients about them.
Some of your parents may remember the old primary book containing a picture of a toad sitting on top of a "toadstool." In some places in Europe terms meaning "toads's hat" or "toad's bonnet" are still used. The
belief is that mushrooms are formed from the harmful substances of the earth and the venom of toads (note that they are not called "frogstools," as frogs are not considered to be poisonous) and that fungi always grow in places where toads may be found, and give shelter to them at times.
One old report suggests that the name fungus came from the word "funus" (funeral) and "ago" (I lead to). Were anyone to eat some of the most poisonous types, it might well actually result in a trip to the graveyard.
How Do Fungi Live?
Fungi, unlike green plants, cannot manufacture their own food. Like humans, they must depend upon other organisms for the nourishment they need for growth and repair.
Most of the higher fungi, called mushrooms or toads tools, send their hyphae into dead or decaying organic matter, such as manure and rotten wood, where enzymes are secreted to digest the food material. This liquified matter is than absorbed into the hyphae, where the mushroom uses it to carry on its metabolic processes. Such a method of living is called saprophytism. Such mushrooms play an important part in Nature, as they help to restore the nutrients tied up in dead bodies back into Nature's cupboard.
Some fungi live upon living organisms, deriving their needed materials from these organisms. Needless to say, in many cases the organism upon which they live is injured in some way. Such fungi may cause considerable economic loss when the organism upon which they live is one of man's crops, as in the case of wheat rust, his domestic animals, or man's own body, as when he gets ring worm or athlete's foot. Such a method of living has been given the name parasitism.
There are fungi that go into a sort or "partnership" with other plants, with both of the partners deriving some benefit from the association. Such a partnership is referred to as mutualism. There are fungi that join their hyphae with the roots of certain trees, from which they draw needed sustenance. However, they also contribute something to the host tree, so that they both gain by the association. In the Far North a fungus has joined with an alga to form what is commonly called "reindeer moss." The caribou dig through the ice and snow to find this plant, which forms an important part of the caribou 's (and other Arctic animals') diet.
Our Earth was at one time probably mostly rock, and it has been the ages-long activity of lichens (a fungus and an alga living together) which slowly broke down the rock into smaller particles which became the soil upon which our crops grow today. They are still doing so, but their action is so slow most of us don't realize such an activity is going on. Next time you are around large stones or boulders, especially if you are in the mountains, look for the interesting colors of the various lichens that encrust them.
Some Harmless and Edible Mushrooms
Most of the over 38,000 known species of mushrooms are not poisonous to man. Many are edible (over a thousand kinds have been reported to be so), though some of the edible ones are far from palatable.
Mushrooms have been eaten since early times. The Greeks and Romans were fond of them. Today, there are the chief food of natives on Terra del Fuego at the tip of South America, and of natives in some parts of Australia. More people in Europe eat mushrooms than do Americans. In most countries, the people consider mushrooms as table delicacies rather than as a main food.
Fungi are about eignty-elght percent water. Almost half of the rest of the mushroom is bulk that is indigestible by man. Mushrooms are probably not any more nourishing than juicy cabbage leaves.
Mushrooms must be fresh when eaten. None should be eaten if it shows the least signs of decay, or if insects have been feeding on it. Also, it is dangerous to eat any mushrooms that have a milky juice.
Only a skilled person can tell a safe from an unsafe mushroom. The agarics, which contain many edible
varieties. includes the common table mushroom. These mushrooms have brown spores, no cup, and delicate pink gills when young, but which turn dark brown later. These are considered to be important points for a mushroom-picker to remember. There are usually more edible mushrooms available in the fall or late summer than at other parts of the year.
Puffballs are one of the commonest fungi in meadows and pastures. They may range from about half an inch in diameter to over a root or more across. When mature they give off little clouds of spores, which no doubt accounts for one of the common names, the Devil's-snuff box. One huge specimen in New York State was mistaken for a sheep at a distance; it measured over five feet in diameter!
One of the most interesting of the mushrooms are those called the Bird's Nest Fungi. The fruiting body resembles the nest of a small bird, and inside the "nest" may be seen what appears to be a clutch of tiny eggs. Each of the little egg-like structures contains great numbers of spores. These fungi may be found growing in damp places on rolling wood or other organic matter.
Not all mushrooms send up a spore-producing structure above ground, but pass their entire lives below the surface of the soil. Perhaps the best known of these are the truffles, which have a high repute in cookery. These plants have been a source of wonder since the dawn of knowledge. The ancient Greeks and Romans marveled that such a plant should exist. Their origin was a special puzzle, and many wild answers were suggested. Some thought them to be tuberous roots (the word "truffle" means tuber), while others thought lightning or thunder, along with warmth and soil, gave rise to the plant. Cicero thought them to be "children of the earth," while other scholars of the time thought they might be the unwanted children of the Gods.
One early writer (about 1500) described seeing as many as twenty-five to thirty camels loaded with truffles
on the way to market in Damascus. He stated that all the mushrooms were sold within a few days. Some of the foods mentioned in the Bible may actually have been truffles. Some of their popularity as a food may have been because they were reputed to "cause women to become more tender and men to be more amiable."
Truffles may sometimes be located by observing the swarms of flies that hover above the hidden fungus, upon which they prefer to lay their eggs. The highly-developed sense of smell of pigs and goats, but more often dogs, is often made use of in locating the hidden plant. There is a story of a poor lame boy who, some hundred and fifty years ago, made his living by sniffing out truffles for his neighbors.
Some fungi have very disagreeable odors. Perhaps the best known of this group are the "stink-horns." The conical, cylindrical cap on the end of the stalk or a mature fruting body is covered with an olive-green mucus which drips from it, and is responsible for the "stink." It is very attractive to flies, especially dung flies and those that feed on dead and decaying flesh, which soon remove the mucus, leaving the surrace a white, honeycomb-like network. The fungus then has no offensive odor. An actual spore-count or a single "fly speck" made by a fly that had been feeding on the mucus-like substa nce on the cap was reported to have contained 22,400,000 spores, each capable or producing a new stinkhorn mushroom.
The emergence or this fruiting body is very rapid, and it may "grow" as much as three inches in hair an hour. The rapid growth or the fruiting body gave rise to much wonderment by people years ago. One explanation was that they were the eggs of spirits or devils.
The fruiting bodies were formerly used by country people in Central Europe in ointments and powders for
gout, rheumatism, and epilepsy, and love potions were brewed from them. The Chinese use this plant as a treatment for ulcers. As late as 1865 someone seriously suggested that the stinkhorn was probably the cause or the disease cholera and similar epidemics.
"He wha goes by the fairy ring
Nae dull nor pine shall see:
And he wha cleans the fairy ring
An easy deeth shall dee."
- Old Scottish Rhyme
Some or you may have noticed rings of mushrooms in your yard or in a field after a rain. Such rings are now known as fairy rings. They were also once called fairy walks, fairy dances, or, by the less romantic and poetic, hag tracks. These colorful names were given to this arrangement or mushrooms back when many people believed in the existence of fairies and other tiny people. Because the mushrooms usually pop above ground during the night, and are first seen early in the morning, people thought they were left by the fairies arter a midnight party.
Not all ancient people thought the rings were left by fairies, however. In Germany they were attributed to
witches. Some thought a winged dragon had scorched the earth with his tail of fire, and mushrooms were
the first plants to grow again in the burnt area.
Country girls used to think the dew from the grass inside the ring was good for the complexion, or could be used for a love potion.
Huge rings of up to fifty yards in diameter have been recorded. Such large rings were sometimes attributed
to lightning from a cloud striking the earth below.
The modern explanation of the fairy ring is that, as the fungus grows, it causes chemical, biotic, or physical
changes, such as using up the available nutrients, taking from the soil something necessary for its growth, or it may give off a substance poisonous to itself. Thus the plant is only able to grow around the periphery, dying to the inside, but constantly extending outward into new soil that will support its growth.
Once in awhile a second ring will be seen within the larger ring. However, this inner ring is usually a different
species of fungus, having different requirements than the outer ring.
Mushrooms as Food
All the dangerously poisonous mushrooms in this country belong to the genus Amanita. There are over a
dozen species of this mushroom. A few are harmless and edible, a few (three or four) may be commonly classed as poisonous, and only one is probably responsible for most of the fatalities resulting from "mushroom poisoning." However, there are some other kinds of mushrooms that may cause such illnesses or discomforts as nausea, vomiting, and upset stomach. Some, though edible, are unpalatable, because of their bitter, acrid or otherwise disagreeable taste, or because they are so tough and woody a human's digestive tract can't handle them. A feeling of nausea usually causes the person who ate them to throw up, thus ridding the body of the distasteful or undigestible material.
In spite of the fact that people have died from time to time from eating mushrooms the past several thousand years, men still persist in including them in the diet. Thus it is important for a person to learn to recognize the common edible ones, if he wishes to escape illness and possible death. No single feature of any mushroom is sufficient to determine its identity or edibility. The only safe way is to know it thoroughly, at all stages of development. The collector should be able to recognize the appearance of an edible mushroom as readily as he would the face of one of his best friends.
Of the many "rules" that have been proposed to tell the edible from the poisonous, some are entirely unreliable, while others have so many exceptions that they are misleading and practically worthless.
One edible mushroom that everyone should be able to recognize is the puffball. Probably all such mushrooms may be eaten without injury (keep in mind that some rare species that might not yet have been "tested" and could cause illness may exist - remember that even the poisonous Amanita group has a few edible species).
Many of the over one thousand varieties that are known to be good to eat belong to the group called the
agarics (Latin: "field"). This group includes the common table mushroom. They have brown spores, no cup, and the gills are a delicated pink when young, which turn dark brown later. The characteristics mentioned above are important for a mushroom picker to keep in mind when looking for members of this group. They are most common in the fall or late summer.
Another edible mushroom that is held in high esteem by the mushroom eaters is the morel, a fungus that looks like a cone-shaped sponge, pitted like a honey comb. It grows best among leaves or wood ashes.
Care should be exercised in the selection of species known to be edible. Select only plants in good condition. Old, partly decayed, water-soaked, worm-eaten or withered plants should be discarded. Do not keep even the sound plants too long without cooking them, as some are very perishable and deteriorate rapidly. If more are collected at one time than can be eaten it is generally better to cook them all at once and keep them in the refrigerator cooked rather than raw. Cook the mushrooms the same day they are
collected if possible. This is especially true in the case of the inky fungi, as the gills soon change to a black inky fluid. Puffballs should be eaten only when the inner flesh is pure and white.
Many insects, both in the adult and larval stage, like to feed upon mushrooms. Be sure to look inside the mushroom for these insects or their galleries. Mushrooms infested with such insects should not be eaten. A colony of larvae in the lower part of the stem, even though they have not yet invaded the upper part, may have a great effect upon the flavor of the cap.
Some mushrooms are harmless to some people, but cause illness to others, just as eggs or strawberries can't be eaten by certain individuals.
What Happens When You Eat a Poisonous Mushroom?
There are actually few poisonous mushrooms, probably less than there are poisonous species among the flowering plants. However, some of the species of poisonous mushrooms can kill mercilessly. The most deadly species belong to the genus Amanita, and have been given such descriptive names as, "Death-Cap," "Fool's Mushroom," "Panther," and "Destroying Angel."
The symptoms of Amanita phaloides (the Death-Cap mushroom) poisoning are characteristic and terrible.
The general course of the disease is as follows. After the mushroom has been eaten, no discomfort is felt
for a period of from ten to twelve hours. This late onset of symptoms is almost diagnostic. (That is, if someone has eaten mushrooms, and the above time lapse occurs, followed by illness, a doctor may almost assume the mushrooms were poisonous). The first discomfort is followed by sudden and intense abdominal pains with vomiting, cold sweats, diarrhea, and excessive thirst. The skin may take on a bluish hue. These symptoms become less severe after about two days, but this period of apparent relief is most dangerous, as they then return in more severe and intense form. Usually the nervous system is gradually
paralyzed, the liver degenerates, there is delirium following coma, then collapse and death. Death occurs three to ten days after eating the poisonous mushrooms, depending upon the resistance of the victim and the amount of the fungus absorbed into his system. All parts of the fungus, including the spores, are poisonous, and a surprisingly small amount will cause illness and even death. The chance of recovery has been estimated to be from ten percent to fifty percent, depending upon the species of poisonous mushroom eaten. We do know that at least ninety percent of the recorded deaths through fungus poisoning have been caused by the Amanita phaloides group. Surprisingly, there are some mushrooms, such as Satan's mushroom, that are poisonous to some people but not to others.
Mushroom poisoning is not new. Among the celebrated mummies of the Tour St. Michel at Bordeaux, dating back from the beginning of the fifteenth century, there is a family of seven which show strong evidence of having died from poisoning by Amanita phalloides, and traces of pain still show on their faces. The fly Amanita is reported to have killed Czar Alexis of Russia.
All of you are probably familiar with the custom of clinking glasses together when drinking a toast. According to legend, this custom arose long ago, when poisoning was one of the common methods of "getting rid" of someone a person didn't want around. The odorless, colorless, tasteless juice of the deadly Death-Cup (Death-Cap) mushroom was ideal for this purpose. A small amount squeezed into the wine cup of the intended victim did the trick. Not until some hours later would the ill-fated person realize what had happened to him - and by then it was too late! Because of the wide-spread custom of poisoning, people
naturally became suspicious that they might be one of those marked for an untimely end. In order to prove to a guest that the drink was not poisoned, the host would pour some of the guest's wine from his cup into his own, and then take a sip. The guest would, in turn, to show that he had no intention of disposing of his host, do the same with his cup. Through time, poisoning as a way of eliminating those you don't particularly like has declined in favor, and now the old custom has degenerated down to Just clinking the glasses together before the toast is drunk.
Not all poisonous mushrooms have the same effect upon the victim. For example, one kind has a poison that acts much like the venom of the rattlesnake, separating the red corpuscles of the blood from the serum. Another paralyzes the nerves that control the heart action.
Some soldiers in New Guinea ate Finger-Cherries because of their attractiveness. One or two of these fruits
did no apparent harm, but nine to ten caused total and apparently permanent blindness.
The Fly-Agaric, though poisonous, is not deadly, and probably wouldn't kill a healthy person. The incubation period is uS1Jaily only one to three hours. There is usually a period of excitement and hallucinations that resemble alcoholic intoxication, soon followed by a deep coma and complete forgetfulness upon awakening. Sometimes, however, the person who eats this mushroom has a worse "trip," with delirium, loss of memory, and convulsions. Recovery is rapid. From the above symptoms, you can see why some of the present-day drug users may include some of the mushrooms among the materials they consume to "get high." The name "Fly-Agaric" comes from the ancient practice of breaking up this mushroom and placing it In milk, to stupefy flies. A related species is used in Jaoan to kill flies. The poison of some mushrooms causes extreme excitement. The Vikings of old are said to have eaten this mushroom to become berserk, and during prohibition days in the United States some people found it less expensive and just as effective as boot-leg liquor. Some primitive tribes believe that a person drugged with the fungus does what the spirits inside him tell him what to do. Modern women-lib advocates will certainly not be in favor of the habit of some primitive peoples of having the women first chew the mushroom, thus getting most of the toxic effects, and then giving the wad of chewed mushroom to the men, who then experienced the excitement and hallucinations.
Certain mushrooms are used during the religious ceremonies of some of the Indians of Mexico, and may even be considered to be semi-sacred. The hallucinogenic drugs, psilocybin and psilocin, used by some members of the present-day culture, are obtained from such mushrooms, generally grown in Mexico.
There is no antidote available for the poison produced by the deadly mushrooms.* As the poison cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted, the powerful toxin is not detected until it is too late. The only hope is to clean out the stomach promptly with a stomach pump shortly after the mushrooms have been eaten. A few years ago a student brought his teacher one of the mushrooms his family had collected over the week-end, and intended to eat for dinner that day. Recognizing the mushroom as one of the poisonous varieties, the teacher rushed to the telephone and called the child's parents, thus saving them from severe illness, and possibly a horrible death.
*The Institut Pasteur in France has produced a serum that gives good results when injected hypodermically or intravenously shortly after the first sign of poisoning. However, the few cases of mushroom poisoning make it impossible for the pharmacists to stock fresh serum, and we may safely assume that none will be available in time if suddenly needed.
Ergot is a fungus that causes great financial losses by attacking various grain crops, particularly rye. Animals eating ergot-infected grain suffer from a serious disease called ergotism. Ergotism shows two distinct types of poisoning gangrenous and convulsive. Though both occur in parts of Europe, America has been remarkably free of the disease, probably because of better cleaning of grain and the use of resistant varieties and seed treatment.
In gangrenous ergotism the limb affected becomes swollen and inflamed in a few weeks, with violent burning pains alternating with very cold. Gradually the affected part becomes numbed, then shrunken and mummified. The extent of the gangrene varies from the mere shedding of nails and the loss of fingers and toes, to that of whole limbs.
Convulsive ergotism shows pronounced nervous symptoms, with twitchings and tonic spasms of the limbs, and strong permanent contractions, particularly of the hands and feet. In severe cases the whole body is subject to sudden, violent, general convulsions. One of the early symptoms, which often continues, is a tingling sensation "as if ants were running about under the skin."
As might be suspected , the present-day "drug culture" enthusiasts have shown a strong interest in the potent poison produced by ergot. The powerful hallucinogenic drug, LSD-25, is a man-made derivative of ergot. The drug is so powerful th at a single ounce is enough to provide 300,000 human doses. Less than 5 cc will kill an elephant! Weigh the effects produced by the drug in ergot mentioned above when thinking about " taking a trip" on LSD-25!
Some Very Valuable Fungi
Many people think of most of the fungi as destroying crops and forests, attacking man and his domestic animals, spoiling his foods, and weakening the timbers of his buildings. There is no doubt that they cause a great deal of damage, but they also aid in the preparation of certain industrial products and help in the saving of a great many lives.
A number of molds are used because their activities upon organic materials result in products useful to man. Yeasts cause bread to rise, and ferment grains and grapes to produce alcoholic drinks, such as wine. Some fungi convert nutrient sugar solutions into citric acid. Fungi can also be used to produce gluconic acid and oxalic acid. Roquefort and Camembert cheeses are produced by the action of certain fungi.
One of the greatest discoveries in medicine was that the fungus Penicillium (which most of you have seen
growing on such foods as bread, jam, apples, oranges, or lemons as a soft, greenish, fuzzy mass) gives off a substance that inhibits the growth of certain bacteria. Bacteria are responsible for many types of diseases and infections. The substance obtained from the fungus is one of the antibiotics, and has been named penicillin, after the fungus from which it is secured. One of the best strains of this fungus for the production of penicillin was discovered by a housewife, growing on a mouldy cantaloupe in a local market! Since the discovery of penicillin a great many other types of molds have been found to produce substances with germicidal effects. Your doctor has no doubt prescribed at lea st one of these to help you combat
Remove the cap from the stem of a mature gill mushroom, and lay it on a piece of paper, gills downward. Protect it from air currents by covering it with something like a large glass or bowl. Try to keep the gills in a vertical position, as this results in the best spore print.
After waiting a few hours, carefully lift the cap from the paper. Millions of tiny spores, which have fallen from
the cap, will give a pattern radiating out from the center like the spokes of a wheel. The color of the spore print can be used as a clue to what family of mushrooms the specimen belongs. There are five families of gill mushrooms, each of whose spores are either white, some shade of pink, rusty brown, purple, or black. A few "odd" species may have spores that have colors of lilac or green hues. Be sure to warn anyone collecting mushrooms to be eaten to be especially careful if the spores are white, as white spores are a
characteristic of the deadly Amanita mushrooms.
Some people grow mushrooms for a source of income. More and more are grown around the larger cities
every year. Such an enterprise requires but a small area, such as a cellar, cave, or old quarry. It is essential that a dark environment with a warm, steady temperature be maintained. If you are interested, you might write to the United States Department of Agriculture for helpful bulletins on the subject.
Christensen, Clyde M. 1970. Common Fleshy Fungi. Burgess Publishing Company, 426 South 6th Street, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55415.
Frieden, Lucious von. 1969. Mushrooms of the World. Bobbs-Merrill (Printed in Italy).
Hesler, L. R. 1960. Mushrooms of the Great Smokies. The University or Tennessee Press. Knoxville. Tennessee.
Lange, Morten, and F. Bayard Hora. 1963. Mushrooms and Toadstools. E. P. Sutton and Company, Incorporated. New York, New York.
McKenney, Margaret. 1962. The Savory Wild Mushroom. University of Washington Press. Seattle, Washington.
Ramsbottom, John. 1954. Mushrooms and Toadstools. Collins. 14 St. James Place. London, England.
Thomas, Willi am S. 1928. Field Book of Common Gilled Mushrooms.G. P. Putnam 's Sons. New York, New York.
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