The cool, wet weather we have been having has brought out some cool mushrooms.
Quick, are mushrooms plants or animals?
If you say neither plants nor animals, then you know your stuff. Mushrooms were once thought to be plants, but mushrooms don’t make their own food. Modern investigations have shown them to be more closely related to animals. For instance, mushrooms have the protein chitin, which is also found in insects. But mushrooms aren’t animals either. For example, they don’t run around like animals do. In fact mushrooms are so distinct, they are now given their own Kingdom, the Fungi.
What kinds of organisms belong to the Kingdom Fungi? Most people recognize that mushrooms are fungi.
In addition, yeasts and truffles, molds, mildew and also disease-causing parasites of insects are fungi. Lichens, which grow on rocks in a variety of climates, are a mix of fungi and algae growing together.
Fungi range in size from microscopic to quite possibly the largest organism on earth. Scientists are making the case that a giant fungus found growing in the Malheur National Forest in Oregon could be the world’s largest individual organism, because it covers some 2200 acres. Information is still being gathered, and because much of the fungus is hidden from view, it also could be made up of clusters of individuals.
The mushroom that we see is called a fruiting body. The fruiting body is like the flowers of a plant because it is how how a fungus makes more of itself or reproduces. The rest of the fungus is made up of threadlike strands called hyphae which form a mat called the mycelium. The mycelium is often hidden within the tree or soil and may grow for years unseen by humans.
If the mushrooms are like flowers, then where are the seeds? It turns out that fungi grow from tiny particles called spores. If you have ever found a mature puffball and stepped on it, the smoky clouds that come out are the spores being released into the air.
(Photograph by Sheila Brown Publicdomain.net)
Here is a picture of a puffball, if you have never seen one.
When the spores land on an appropriate surface, they produce strands called hyphae and then mycelia to develop into a new fungus.
1. Fungi as Food
Explore edible mushrooms by visiting a grocery store to see all the different kinds that are available. We found shiitake, oysters, white, brown and portabellas. Discuss how the types are similar and different (some kinds sold under different names are the same species, simply more or less mature versions.)
You might want to buy a few different mushrooms, and try the different flavors in your favorite recipes. You could also pick up some yeast — another fungus– and make bread with it. Show the yeast to your children and let them smell it. By the way, there is nothing better than white mushrooms sautéed in butter made into a sandwich between two slices of freshly made bread.
Caution about wild mushrooms: Because some species of wild mushrooms can be poisonous and make you sick, it is best to leave collecting to real experts. Some of the poisonous ones can closely resemble edible ones.
2. Make Spore Prints
If you don’t want to eat the mushrooms, use a few different kinds of mushrooms from the grocery store to make spore prints. Try to find older mushrooms already producing the brown powdery spores. Young mushrooms with pink gills or button mushrooms aren’t ready to make spores yet.
Place the mushroom with the frilly gill side against some white paper and then cover it with a glass or bowl. (You’ll have to remove the stem first). Leave for a few hours or overnight. If the mushroom is producing spores, it should leave a print when you gently lift it away.
Scientists who study fungi, called mycologists, use spore prints to help figure out what species they have found.
We have a newer post about yeast with activities.
If you have the time, growing mushrooms from a kit can be an amazing experience for kids. Kits are available with different types of mushrooms, at varying sizes and costs. They usually require certain conditions for optimal growth, so make sure you can provide that. Check the Internet for sources.
Interested in learning more? Check our growing list of children’s books about fungi at Science Books for Kids.