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Mushrooming

Mushrooming   —by Jinny Batterson    

For the past several weeks, the weather near our central North Carolina condo has been steamy, with frequent afternoon and overnight thunderstorms. In many places, the ground has stayed damp. This year’s drenchings have brought out an abundant crop of late-summer mushrooms. Woodlands and fields are full of gilled mushrooms, sponge-bottomed mushrooms, veined mushrooms–the most evident types. Some are deadly poisonous, most are either distasteful or likely to cause digestive distress, a few are edible and choice. Lots of years of looking at and for mushrooms have given me a very basic knowledge plus the confidence to harvest one or two species that are distinctive enough and delicious enough to be worth gathering to eat. 

What many of us fail to realize is that what we call mushrooms are just the fruiting bodies of plants whose network of nutrition-gathering mycelium can stretch underground for miles. The largest known single organism on earth, it turns out, is a honey mushroom in Oregon discovered during the 1990’s with a mycelium encompassing 2,384 acres, or about four square miles.

Whenever we humans get too taken with our own supposed dominance and power, it’s prudent to remember that mushrooms and their fungal ancestors have been around for way longer than us. They’ve survived many of the climactic cataclysms that occurred before mammalian life even existed. By weight, mushrooms and their mycelium are at least an order of  magnitude greater than the combined girth of all seven-plus billion of us humans.   

  Whenever we are tempted to get hung up on the variations of sexual relations among human adults, we might ponder the reproductive behavior of mushrooms, as described in this entry from the Cornell Mushroom blog (https://blog.mycology.cornell.edu/2010/06/02/a-fungus-walks-into-a-singles-bar/):

“ Among fungi, any individual can donate or receive genetic material–so you can already see we need to let go of the concept of gender. Let’s talk instead in terms of what mycologists call mating types. A fungus simply needs to find a mate of a different mating type. Of the fungi you might be familiar with, hmm, most species have only two mating types (they’re bipolar), and some have four or more possible mating types (they’re tetrapolar). Any particular individual of a species is just one mating type, of course. Most molds have two; many mushrooms and bracket fungi have four or more. A few fungi, like the unassuming split gill, Schizophyllum commune, have more than ten thousand!”

My first recollection of mushrooms came from the Lewis Carroll story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. As my parents read to me, I marveled at illustrations of statuesque gilled mushrooms. My parents cautioned me against imitating Alice: “Don’t ever eat a toadstool,” they insisted.

Later, once our family got a television and started watching the evening news, I sometimes saw images of “mushroom clouds”—the kind formed by explosions of the nuclear bombs then being tested above-ground. A history series featured photos and brief videos of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki near the end of World War II, creating mushroom-shaped clouds miles above their point of impact. My parents told me to be afraid of mushroom clouds, too, but were somewhat at a loss about how to respond. My dad constructed a bomb shelter that might or might not have provided sufficient protection in the area near Washington D.C. where we then lived; my mom discussed with her women’s group whether the milk delivered to our doorstep had dangerous levels of strontium-90, a calcium-like carcinogenic isotope whose presence in milk became elevated during peak nuclear testing years.   

Given our current climate, in which both environmental and governmental problems can  on some days seem to be mushrooming out of control, paying a bit more attention to real mushrooms can be reassuring. These humble living things have adapted to climates that were previously supposed incapable of supporting life; they can spring up when least expected; their underground support networks are everywhere.