| Oct 22, 2009

Back to HomeOutdoors in the Land O'Lakes - October 29, 2009 Fungi: Weird and WonderfulShapes of Natureby Lorraine Julien

After checking a “Mushrooms of Ontario” book, I think this fungus is a member of the Coral family of fungi, probably Golden Coral (Ramaria aurea) or Eastern Cauliflower (Sparassis herbstii). If an expert on mushrooms happens to read this column, I’d appreciate your comments. 

Though some may not have appreciated the considerable amount of rain we received this past summer, some things in nature really thrived on the moisture: for instance, many trees had noticeable growth spurts and it seemed many familiar and strange types of fungi were sprouting up all over. I know there were literally hundreds of mushrooms and less familiar fungi all over our property.

During the summer, something caught my eye as I walked past a tiny spruce tree. There, lying on the ground near the base of the tree, was something that looked exactly like a natural sea sponge – I found it intriguing, took some photos and kept an eye on it. It lasted for many weeks but gradually shriveled up once we had a dry spell in September.

The fungi world is quite complex and very interesting as anyone who walks or hikes in the country would know. There are infinite shapes and colours seemingly popping up everywhere, especially after a warm rain. Though most are quite attractive, very few mushrooms are safely edible. I’ve only eaten puffballs and morels – mainly because they are easily identifiable but some of the prettiest mushrooms are the most poisonous….according to my mushroom guide.

Similar to mosses and ferns, fungi reproduce by zillions of tiny spores rather than flowers and seeds. Air currents and rainfall disperse the spores. Food sources vary by species: some live on decaying wood and other dead plant material while some fungi grow on insects.

Fungi do not just sit there and look interesting though - they have many roles in our lives:

Fungi work at decaying and rotting wood so that it breaks down into soil

Yeast fungi are used to leaven bread and other baked products

We purchase edible fungi in the grocery stores and order them on our pizzas

Fungus fermentation has been used for thousands of years to produce wines, beer and spirits; it’s also used to produce the citric acid used in soft drinks, candies, and artificial lemon juice

Human organ transplants are assisted by the anti-rejection drug, Cyclosporin which is produced by a microscopic fungus

Many antibiotics are derived from fungi – penicillin is probably the best known

There is a blue mould (penicillium) that grows on many foods such as bruised fruit, cheese, bread, etc. This member of the fungus family is quite resistant to cold and is able to grow even on refrigerated food. Sometimes, though, penicillium is introduced on purpose to food such as blue cheese.

The roles of fungi are not all positive though as evidenced by the huge crop losses every year from fungal plant diseases. You only have to look in your garden to see the effect of powdery mildew on plants. Whenever powdery mildew is present, the plant should be cut back in the fall and the affected leaves should be either burned or composted thoroughly. If the mildew is left, eventually there will be black spots on the plant that will be ready to grow on its host again next year.

Certain skin infections in humans such as ringworm and athlete’s foot are caused by a type of fungi.

Probably the most important role of fungi though is to provide moisture and nutrients to trees. Every tree has hundreds of thousands of kilometres of fungal threads (hyphae) attached to its roots that supply the tree with the nutrients it needs for healthy growth. In return, the tree provides the hyphae with sugars needed to grow the fungal fruitbodies.

I have concentrated on a few interesting fungi facts here but have barely scratched the surface of the intriguing world of fungi. Once thought to be a type of plant, it’s now recognized that fungi are in a kingdom of their own. Estimates are that there are more than a million species of fungi but only about 10% have been recognized and described by scientists. The next time you walk past some of these strange growths, pay attention to them: they are the ultimate recyclers of nutrients!

Please feel free to report any observations to Lorraine Julien at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  or Steve Blight at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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