What we know as “mushrooms” are actually just the small fruiting bodies of these amazing creatures. Without them, forests would not exist in the form we know.
Every child knows mushrooms. They are the little plants with a stem and an umbrella on top that you often see in the forest. Toadstools, for example. Right? Not quite. What we see is only a small part of the mushroom, its fruiting body. The bulk of a mushroom, however, is made up of a network of fine filaments. This part is called mycelium. Most of the time we don’t see it, because in forest mushrooms it grows underground or in the wood of trees.
This invisible part of the fungi can become huge. The filaments of the largest fungi can form networks that extend over enormous areas. Mushrooms have been discovered that are among the largest living things in the world. They extend over many hectares and weigh many tons! There are many more fungi in the forest floor than bacteria or small animals.
For a long time, fungi were considered plants because they obviously do not move and therefore are not considered animals. But their way of life and structure are quite different from plants. For example, they lack the substance chlorophyll, which plants use to harness solar energy and turn their leaves green. Therefore, fungi got their own realm in biology, next to plants and animals.
The cleaning crew of the forest
Fungi feed themselves by decomposing dead plants and dead animals. Their abilities are particularly important in the forest. This is because only fungi manage to decompose certain components of wood.
In this way, they clean the forest of dead wood and dead organisms. They turn this into humus, i.e. nutrient-rich soil. Without this, no new plants could grow in the forest.
Fungi and trees are often partners
Some plant species could not even draw enough nutrients from the soil on their own to grow. This is where certain species of fungi come to the rescue: Their tissues wrap around the roots of plants and help supply them with nutrients. In return, the fungi feed on substances that the plants produce. For example, the “birch fungus” is usually found near birch trees.
Through the extensive network of fungi in the forest soil, the trees can even exchange nutrients with each other! However, there are also mushrooms that are harmful to trees or other plants.
Be careful when picking mushrooms
Although mushrooms are so important to the forest: picking them for cooking is fine if you follow a few rules when doing so.
For one, many species of mushrooms are considered protected and may not be collected, or only in small quantities. And in nature reserves, mushrooms may not be collected at all. Secondly, some types of mushrooms are poisonous, and it can be dangerous to eat them. The tricky thing is that some poisonous mushrooms look similar to other species for deception.
Picking mushrooms or preparing your own mushrooms should only be done with a person who knows mushrooms well!