When speaking of rapid growth, we often use either of two comparisons, “growing like a weed”, or “growing like a mushroom”. Both develop rapidly. However, in a mushroom we cannot observe its progress, not because it grows over night, but because the entire fruiting body—which we eventually see —develops in every detail underground. Usually this requires several days just as a flower unfolds from bud to blossom. After a heavy rainfall, the embryonic mushroom absorbs a large amount of water, causing the expansion of the cells. The rapidly enlarging mushroom suddenly bursts through the thin layer of earth which covers it—and we say, “It grew over night!” What is the difference between a mushroom and a toadstool? Most people assume a mushroom is edible while a toadstool is poisonous. According to common usage this distinction would seem correct. Scientifically speaking the two terms are synonymous but with different derivations. Toadstool originates from the German word “todt”, which means death. In Germany a certain genus of mushrooms, known as the Ammanita, grows in abundance, and is very poisonous. From this arose the prevalent idea that all plants of similar description would be fatal: hence, the term—“toadstools”. However, the term “mushroom” had its origin in France, meaning “moss room” because they were found in dark and musty places where moss was common. Not all mushrooms are edible nor are all toadstools poisonous.
Perhaps some of you would be interested in the structure of one of these plants. Beneath the soil or in decomposing leaves lies hidden the most important part of the plant known as the mycelium, which consists of a mass of roots and stems. It is important to note that members of the mushroom family differ from most plants in that they are unable to manufacture their own food, as they lack the necessary green pigment called chlorophyll. Hence, they obtain all their nourishment from decaying substances or other hosts. The mycelium doesn’t live for a few
days as the fruiting body which we see, but for weeks and months.
The part appearing above the surface of the ground consists of two parts—a stalk and a cap or pileus, which resembles the top of an umbrella. Have you ever removed the cap to observe the lower surface? You may have been surprised to notice the thin blade-like gills radiating in all directions from the center to the outer edge. What an important function is theirs! They must maintain the species by producing tiny naked seeds known as spares. You would look in vain for these wee seeds, as only a high-powered microscope will reveal them. They are measured in microns (25,000 of an inch). The slender stalk which supports the cap is known as the stipe, which in some species has a ring around it called the annulus. Sometimes the base of the stipe is swollen and this enlargement is called the valva. The stalk may have either, both, or neither of these characteristics depending on the type of mushroom.
Have you ever seen a spore print? Simply remove the stipe of a mushroom and place the cap on a sheet of white paper in its natural position with its gills downward. After covering it with a glass for a few hours, to prevent air currents from blowing away the spores, carefully remove the glass and lift up the cap and you will see a pattern of the gill arrangement produced by the falling spores. It might be interesting to note the variety of colors in these prints, for some species have pink spores, others have black ones while others are various shades of brown or white. To the mycologist, spore prints are very valuable in identifying species of toadstools.
How can we determine if a toadstool is edible? Many theories are current. Some believe that highly-colored varieties are very dangerous. Others state that those which turn black as the “ink caps” are toxic. An old Italian collector once informed me that species found growing in lawns and open pastures were safe to eat. while those in woods were usually poisonous. Others maintain that if a silver spoon tarnishes when placed in the container during the process of cooking them, they are harmful. To be brief we might discredit all these prevalent ideas by stating that there is no definite rule to determine the edibility of mushrooms. Only a few mycologists (specialized botanists) can be trusted in making the final distinction between the harmless and the harmful ones. Frequently, their decisions are reached only after the final test—eating very minute portions of the variety in question and carefully noticing its effect. Don’t risk picking your own when you can safely purchase a dependable commercial variety. Too many deaths have resulted from “mushroom experiments”.
Closely related to the mushroom family are three types of similar fungi: morel, puff-ball, and truffle; all three of which are edible. In early spring the morel makes its appearance as a deeply furrowed cone-shaped structure, while in autumn we find a large globular structure called the puff-ball, some of which attain the weight of ten pounds. The interior of a puffball resembles a mass of rising bread-dough. As long as the puffballs are white, they can be used as food but as soon as they turn brown, they become tough and leathery and the inside deteriorates. As the puff-ball matures, millions of tiny spores are produced within. Perhaps you have kicked one of these while hiking thru the woods and observed the clouds of smoke (spores) rising out of the small aperture on the top, appearing as a miniature Vesuvius.
The third edible group mentioned above is the truffle. These are not only very different in appearance but especially in growth habits, since their entire life is spent underground. Then, how are they found? Trained hogs and dogs are used to hunt them for they can locate them by their strong pleasant odor. In normal years our country imports about 20,000 lbs. annually from France and countries of southern Europe, since they are not native to our own country.
According to historians the Romans were some of the first people to raise the mushroom. Wealthy people in the upper class grew small quantities of the poisonous Ammonite in their gardens for the purpose of silencing their enemies. At their feasts a few drops of the juice of an Ammonite were placed in the beverage of the individual whom they wished to kill. Hence, the custom arose to have the host sample the drink before pouring it out and passing it to the guests to prove that it had not been poisoned.
Natives of Australia use certain varieties of mushrooms as a staple food, while the inhabitants of the islands off the southern coast of South America depend almost entirely upon the mushroom for their food supply. As far as food value is concerned, the mushroom ranks very low, being used chiefly for its rich flavor in preparing meats. Today, the commercial variety we buy is known as the Agaricus campestris, which can be purchased with safety in your neighborhood store. The raising of this variety furnishes a very profitable income to many large commercial growers.