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What is the difference between 
a fungus and a mushroom ?

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Before we can begin to look at different species, we must understand that the quick answer to the above question is that they are the same, yet different. A term you need to be aware of is “mycology” which is the study of fungi.

Fungi are members of a large group called “eukaryotic organisms”.  This group also includes things like yeast and molds.

Characteristics of fungi include:

      -  they cannot manufacture their own food by means of photosynthesis;
-  they secrete an enzyme in order to digest parts of their surroundings;
-  they are composed of thin one-cell strands called "mycelium";
-  their cell walls are made up of “chitin”, not cellulose;
-  they reproduce using “spores”.  


This tree stump is host to a variety of mushroom and fungi.


The Function of Fungi - 

The first thing you should be aware of is that the function of fungi is to break down plant matter.  Fungi can, therefore, be found on organic materials found in the forest - things like trees and leaves, but it can also be found on food and dung (poop). 

Fungi are organisms that are made up of networks of tiny, microscopic “threads” which spread themselves throughout the soil.  The individual threads are known as “hypha”, and an entire network of hypha is called a "mycelium".


Blooming Fungi -

The mycelium lives in the ground throughout the year, but when the conditions are right, the fungus will want to “bloom” in order to produce and disperse spores to produce new fungi.  The mushrooms we typically see coming out of the ground, is the fungus “blooming”.  The visible spore producing structures are called “fruiting bodies” or “sporocarps” we call them mushrooms.

Little knots of hyphae begin to form under the ground and grow into two parts:  the mushroom’s cap and the stem.  When the knots, called “primordia” get large enough, the stem and cap get pushed above the ground and become visible to us.  


The fruiting bodies grow in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and colours.  Some quite ugly like the dark “Devil’s Urn” which is 12 cm tall goblet-shaped bloom or the cute “Lemon Drops” which are small, bright yellow 3mm droplets.  There are some that look like orange peels, and the beautiful Amanita Muscaria with its red cap and white speckles.  Some even look like coral!  Some are edible, but some are deadly poisonous.

While the mycelium remains under the ground all year, the visible mushroom portions live for only a short while.  A single mycelium can produce many mushrooms.

Mushroom Spores -

Mushroom spores are produced on the “gills” that are typically under the “cap” of the mushroom. A mushroom will grow tall on its stalk in order to raise its cap higher than its surroundings.  The cap must be higher than the grass or leaves. When the spores are released, they fall to the ground and are carried by breezes in the air.  The higher the cap, the further the spores can be dispersed.  Keep in mind that the spores are microscopically tiny!    

Fungi cannot make their own food like plants using photosynthesis.  Instead, they secrete enzymes from the tips of the hyphae in the mycelium in order to break down organic matter.  As the mycelium eats the food around itself, it grows outward, looking for more sources of food.  The inner portion of the mycelium dies.

The rings that are produced by a growing mycelium are often called “fairy rings”.  These can become very large and can even be hundreds of years old!  


Mushroom Cap Morphology

Mycologists use various terms to describe fungi during identification.   The following chart will assist you in becoming familiar with gill attachment, cap shapes and illustrations to differentiate between gills, pores, ridges and teeth.



Image Source:  Created by debivort

This chart is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.



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What's the difference between a mushroom and a fungus?

Fungi slide presentation - "Fabulous Fungi"







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Fabulous Fungi



"The world depends 
on fungi, 
because they are 
major players in the
cycling of materials 
and energy 
around the world."

~ E.O. Wilson ~




"I thought a forest 
was made up 
entirely of trees, 
but now I know 
that the foundation 
lies below ground,
in the fungi."

~ Derrick Jensen ~





"Falling in love 
is like 
eating mushrooms, 
you never know 
if it's the real thing 
until it's too late."

~ Bill Balance ~









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