Types of Fungi: Mushrooms, Toadstools, Molds

Some kinds of fungi
Some kinds of fungi

Fungi are as important to our lives as wheat, cattle, fish or any other living thing.

Here are just few of the reasons to admire this life form:

  • without the various types of fungi, we would soon be knee deep in dead leaves that refused to rot.
  • trees that died would just remain lying where they fell. Only fungi can break down lignin, the tough material at the heart of woody tissues.
  • our crops would fail because the nutrients that fungi recycle from dead plant tissues would no longer be available.
  • important farm animals like sheep are unable to digest grass without a little help from some friendly fungi

And then there is the sheer beauty of many of these organisms...

What would our woods and fields be like without all those beautiful mushrooms and (sometimes, sinister) toadstools in the Fall?

So, this page takes a look at a very important group of living things that, on the whole, we should all be grateful for.

What Exactly are Fungi?

Scientist used to place fungi in the Plant Kingdom, mainly because they were thought to be incapable of moving under their own power. Closer study shows that at least some fungi have reproductive stages with gametes that can swim.

The most obvious difference to plants, though, is that Fungi do not make food from sunlight and carbon dioxide. Fungi use food in a similar way to animals, digesting and absorbing what they need in the environment.

Nowadays, Fungi are given their own Kingdom.

Within the Fungi Kingdom, these are the most important sub-divisions or 'Phyla':

  • Basidiomycota: the mushrooms and toadstools.
  • Ascomycota: sometimes called sac fungi. These often have vivid eyecatching fruiting bodies. This group includes the very tasty morels (see below) and truffles. It also includes the penicillin species which gave us the first effective antibiotic.
  • Neocallimastigomycota: These live in the digestive tracts of plant eating animals like sheep. The enzymes that they produce break down polysaccharides like cellulose- the tough material that gives plants their strength. The sheep can then use the simpler carbohydrates that are produced as food.
  • Blastocladiomycota: mostly soil dwellers that digest detritus of all kinds
  • Glomeromycota: a very specialized group of Fungi that live in a beneficial symbiosis with Liverworts(small plants similar to mosses).
  • Chytridiomycota: an ancient group of fungi that digest tough proteins like keratin (common in skin and hair) and chitin (especially common in the outer 'shells' of insects)
  • Microsporidia: a small group of single-celled parasites that infect beetles, mostly

There is a closer look at the 2 most important groups, the Basidiomycota and the Ascomycota, below.

Basidiomycota

Some edible Russulas of the Basidiomycota
Some edible Russulas of the Basidiomycota

Basidiomycota is a large group and the one we are most familiar with. It includes:

  • mushrooms
  • puffballs
  • stinkhorns
  • bracket fungi
  • jelly fungi
  • boletes
  • smuts
  • bunts
  • rusts
  • chanterelles
  • earth stars

Mushrooms are one of the most noticeable groups of fungi. Most of the fungus is hidden from view in soil, leaves or deadwood (depending on the species). The large fruiting bodies that emerge, mostly in the Fall, are conspicuous and often very beautiful.

Like most fungi, Basidiomycota are saprotrophic, which means they decompose dead matter including the toughest of plant materials like lignin, a major structural component of trees.

Underground, the Basidiomycota produce large networks of tiny tubes called hyphae. These grow through dead plant and animal material by secreting enzymes that dissolve a pathway. The digested material is absorbed and used as food.

Mushroom 'Roots'. A mass of hyphae growing underground.
Mushroom 'Roots'. A mass of hyphae growing underground.

The fruiting bodies we see above ground disperse spores which develop into new individuals.

Some of these fruiting bodies make a very good meal- like the russulas pictured above. Some will make you very sick, like the Amantia, shown below.

Exercise caution!

Poisenous Amantia.
Poisenous Amantia.

Ascomycota

Some Ascomycota. A typical sac fungi, left, and two kinds of delicious morel (center and right).
Some Ascomycota. A typical sac fungi, left, and two kinds of delicious morel (center and right).

Ascomycota is the largest phylum of Fungi, with over 64,000 species. There are 2 main groups.

Pezizomycotina

Pezizomycotina fungi have fruiting bodies similar to mushrooms and include morels, truffles, ergot and cup fungi.

Truffles (Tuber genus) are one of the most expensive foods on the planet. It is impossible to grow truffles on a large scale and they are very rare in their favorite woodland habitats.

Pigs or dogs with especially sensitive noses are required to locate the much prized underground fruiting bodies.

White Truffles currently cost around $5 per gram ($2,000 per pound)

A black truffle of the Ascomycota
A black truffle of the Ascomycota

Saccharomycotina

This group comprises most of the yeasts, including the very important, baker's yeast.

The white bloom on grapes (picture below) is a mixture of wild yeasts and molds.

In the past, natural yeasts present on grapes were relied on to ferment the juice and produce wine.

Nowadays, commercial winemakers usually innoculate grape juice with a high dose of a single variety of specially grown yeast like Saccharomyces cerevisiae, rather than relying on the slower growing wild yeasts.

Whichever yeasts are used, the process is essentially the same. Yeasts consume sugar (without needing oxygen) and produce alcohol and carbon dioxide in the fermentation process.

 Ascomycota fungus as a bloom on red grapes.
Ascomycota fungus as a bloom on red grapes.

Harmful Fungi

Most fungi are beneficial. Mushrooms make wonderful food. Yeasts help us with the most basic food stuff- bread. The detritus eating fungi keep our crops supplied with nutrients by efficent recycling.

There are some fungi that are harmful to humans, however.

  • Atheletes Foot is caused by the Fungus, Trichophyton.
  • The spores from molds can cause respiratory problems in the home. See: cdc.gov/mold/stachy.htm
  • Some Ascomycota like the powdery mildews, are a serious problem for gardeners and farmers, especially in wet years.
  • Fungus, especially molds, can spoil food (though the losses are small compared to the ravages of insects).
  • Ergot is an interesting fungus that can thrive in stored cereals like rye if it becomes damp.The hallucinations and convulsions that Ergot ingestion produce were responsible for 'Saint Anthony's Fire' in the Middle Ages. Whole communities could be seized with strange symptoms often ascribed to witchcraft.
  • A few species of fungi can be fish parasites affecting farmed and wild fish.

On the whole, though. I am staying with my original statement. Fungi are good for us and we should be grateful for them!

Have You Ever Been Mushroom Hunting?

  • All mushrooms and toadstools are scary!
  • I would not eat wild mushrooms but love to see them.
  • I know what I am doing and love cooking wild mushrooms
See results without voting

Some of My Favorite Fungi Pictures

Some of these are beautiful, some a little sinister!

A number of these fungi are edible but you should never eat any fungi without expert advice. Many people die each year as a result of eating poisonous species.

 Indigo milk cap
Indigo milk cap | Source

The Indigo Milk Cap is from the Russula family. It is found in all kinds of woodland.

In many countries like China and Mexico, it is eaten.

It can be found in the US and Europe.

Sheathed Woodtuft
Sheathed Woodtuft

Sheathed Woodtuft (Kuehneromyces mutabilis) grows on decaying wood. It is not only provides a wonderful bright spot in a wood, it is edible and very tasty.

It is a common species, in cooler climates, worldwide.

Witches Butter
Witches Butter

Tremella mesenterica (above) is a bright yellow or orange 'jelly' fungus that grows on trees.

Some of its unflattering names include 'yellow brain' and 'witches butter'. Some more poetic names are 'golden jelly fungus', and' yellow trembler'.

Magenta coral fungus
Magenta coral fungus

Clavaria zollingeri (above) is usually found in leaf litter or grasslands. It is a widespread fungus but in the US, you will only find Clavaria in the Northeastern forests.

Bleeding tooth fungus grows under conifers.
Bleeding tooth fungus grows under conifers. | Source

Hydnellum peckii has some sinister names, including the bleeding tooth fungus, and the Devil's tooth fungus but at least it is not poisonous.

I think it is rather attractive!

More by this Author


Comments 11 comments

Will Apse profile image

Will Apse 5 years ago Author

Fungi 'holidays' or 'forages' with experts are really popular in the UK. I'm glad people do the same thing in the US.

Better luck on your next trip!


livelonger profile image

livelonger 5 years ago from San Francisco

Great stuff. We went on a (failed) morel mushroom hunt a few months ago with a mycologist. We're going to try again in December, when, hopefully, the moist weather will have allowed a bunch of fungal delicacies to grow. I wouldn't dare trying to eat something without having an experienced mushroom hunter or mycologist examine it first, either.


Will Apse profile image

Will Apse 5 years ago Author

JT- I wouldn't dare try to describe which fungi are safe and which are not. Even if you have a really good reference book it is difficult to differentiate between some very enjoyable species and some very dangerous species.

If you want to learn about which fungi are safe, I reckon you need an expert. That means a course. Or finding someone who has been collecting mushrooms for a good while


JT Walters profile image

JT Walters 5 years ago from Florida

Yes very useful hub.

I would have been really interested in knowing which mushrooms were edible and which ones are not.

I enjoyed the hub.

Thanks

JT


Will Apse profile image

Will Apse 5 years ago Author

One advantage the French and Italians have over the British and Americans is that they really know their fungi.

Every family in the countryside has special places to gather fungi that only they know about. They even pass these secret locations from generation to generation.


Wanderlust profile image

Wanderlust 5 years ago from New York City

I love all kind of mushrooms, chanterelle and truffles are my favorites. In Europe gathering wild mushrooms in the forest is a popular activity, too bad it is not that popular in the USA. Great hub!


homesteadbound profile image

homesteadbound 5 years ago from Texas

Very nice hub. I love all the different fungi and mushrooms and often take pictures of them. The colors that seem to just manifest out of nothing are so amazing. And the different forms it takes... Thanks for sharing... I'm looking forward to a trek in the woods.


Gordon Hamilton profile image

Gordon Hamilton 5 years ago from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom

Great information, Will.

I love mushrooms - always have done - and my ex was a biochemist. When we travelled in the wilds and came across different fungi, she would always know which were edible and which were not, without me having to go through the rigmarole of the lip test.

Personally, I love a variety of mushrooms, fried in butter and garlic as a delicious lunch - just like Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall used to prepare on his gastro-bike! :)

I just wish our supermarkets and greengrocers were a bit more adventurous in the mushrooms they offer for sale. So many consumers are missing out on so many different and delicious flavours.


Will Apse profile image

Will Apse 5 years ago Author

Thank you both. It is amazing how much I enjoyed writing this page. I think it is just to do with the pure pleasure of how rich and varied life is. I also like morels!


ruffridyer 5 years ago from Dayton, ohio

It is amazing how every living thing contributes in some way to life on earth. A very good hub.

p.s. I love morels


DavyJones02 profile image

DavyJones02 5 years ago from Netherlands

A well put together hub!

Voted up and interesting

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.


    Click to Rate This Article
    working