There is a fantastical quality to many fungi – from the colour, texture and shape of their fruiting bodies, the iceberg like quality of their hidden depths, and the extraordinary relationships they have with other organisms alive or dead!
The mushrooms, toadstools, brackets, puffballs and others that we normally see and recognise as fungi, are actually only the fruiting bodies of these organisms. Most appear in the damp of autumn and are designed to release fungal spores - their means of sexual reproduction. Some can be bright and showy like the scarlet red and white of Fly Agaric, many more are subtle like the delicate Amethyst Deceiver, and others just plain odd like the black and knobbly King Alfred's Cakes (aka Cramp Balls).
But the fruit bodies are only the most visible face of fungi. Out of sight, hidden from view within the substance on which they grow – fallen timber, leaf litter, soil, plant, or insect – there are a mass of thin strands. These "hyphae" are the means by which the fungi feed. The hyphae release enzymes that break down the required nutrients in their surroundings, and then absorb both these and water to feed the fungus. Collectively the hyphae making up a fungus is known as its mycelium. Ecologists now know that the mycelium of a single fungus may cover many hectares, weigh several tons and link all the trees in a wood regardless of species!
Many fungi have the truly amazing quality of helping other organisms to grow more effectively. For example the mycelium of many woodland fungi can actually penetrate the cells of tree roots andgive them nitrogen and phosphorous (often from long distances away where the tree roots cannot reach). In these "mycorrrhizal" associations the tree responds by giving the fungi some of the sugars it derives from photosynthesis of its leaves. In fact a tree like a beech cannot live without its fungal partners and the same is true of many orchids. Other fungi are not so benign. Some will infiltrate already diseased plants and trees and kill them off, whilst others attack healthy trees and kill them. Some specialist fungi even attack insects and modify their behaviour. Behaviour for example that causes an infected fly to climb to an exposed position on a shrub to die, thereby enabling the best possible distribution of the fungal spores it carries in its body! Weird!!
They really are astonishing and there is so much more to learn about them.
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