Mushrooms from genera Abortiporus to Xylaria are a misunderstood and understudied lot, and much of what people know, or think they know, about this mostly hidden kingdom is little more than myth. Yes, kingdom is the correct label, which leads to your first mycological misconception.
Mushrooms are plants
No, not exactly, although if you ask most individuals who did not study the life sciences to categorize mushrooms they would almost certainly identify them as such. But the fact is that mushrooms are fungi, and fungi have their own separate kingdom, as do plants, animals, archaebacteria, eubacteria and protists.
Plants produce their own food through the process of photosynthesis; fungi cannot, and do not require sunlight to thrive. Fungi feed on decaying plant and animal matter; in the case of mushrooms this is done by the portion of the organism which lies underground, the connective filaments or mycelium. The actual mushroom which is studied and picked and potentially consumed is the fruiting body of the fungus. It has a fleeting existence at best and is the reproductive organ of the fungus, generating spores from which new fungi may develop.
Greek heroes and mushrooms
Speaking of mycelium the Greek hero Perseus, better known for slaying the snake-haired Gorgon Medusa is also credited with founding the city of Mycenae and, with that, the Mycenaean civilization.
He did this to honor a mushroom which, by a process not made completely clear in the mythology, gave Perseus water when he was thirsty.
Mycenae, of course, translates to “Mushroom City.”
Most mushrooms are poisonous
Not so. Less than one percent of all mushrooms which have been studied sufficiently to make the call are poisonous. Some may cause mild stomach disorders, flushing, sweating, even hallucinations, but there are very few man-killers among mushrooms. This does not mean that unidentified mushrooms should ever be consumed with impunity; the deadly ones are very deadly indeed, and the death they cause is a slow and painful one.
A few of the more deadly mushrooms known are these. The rogue’s gallery includes Galerina autumnalis, also known as “Deadly Galerina” or “False Morel” because of a superficial resemblance to Morchella esculenta, or true morel, which is harmless, highly prized and, as the name suggests, delicious.
A number of individuals succumb to or are badly sickened each year by members of the Cortinarius genus of mushrooms, specifically the orellanus and rubellus species. These two innocuous-appearing and, by all accounts, tasty fungi reinforce the cautionary tale: If unsure about a mushroom,s identification, never eat it.
The Amanita genus contains the best-known and deadliest mushrooms; the species ocreata, smithiana, phalloides, bisporigera, virosa and verna all take a toll on the unwary. While specific toxins contained by all of these fungi vary slightly from species to species, all attack and destroy the liver and kidneys. Mortality is high, recovery long and difficult and generally requiring organ transplants.
And this leads to another myth.
All Amanitas are poisonous
Not always. Amanita muscaria also known as the “fly agaric” mushroom is slightly toxic, but almost never fatal. It is valued by some for the hallucinogenic effects which it causes. These include a sensation of flying throughout the world, and it is believed that its use by Finnish shaman and the mythology which surrounds that use is responsible at least in part for the story of Santa Claus.
Ironically, muscaria is the mushroom most frequently used to illustrate fairy tales and children’s books because of its attractive form and bright red and white cap.
Amanita Caesarea, or Caesar’s mushroom, is one of the most highly prized edible mushrooms in the world and a boost to the economies where it grows. It is picked and cultivated throughout Mediterranean lands and often sold for exorbitant sums in stores and markets. Occasionally an individual may be allergic to Caesarea, but this is due to sensitivity, not toxicity.
Where the fairies dance
And, of course, many cultures have crafted stories to explain the circular growth of mushrooms which can appear in woodlands and on lawns. This may be attributed to fairies, who create the circles by dancing, the mushrooms springing up in their wake. Scandinavians credit the elves with similar behavior, and the Germans attribute the puzzling fungal formations to the activities of witches.
Sometimes the rings are said to be portals between the faerie realms and those of mortals, and interesting adventure tales have sprung up around those humans who make the transition to the lands of the fair folk. Usually this involves bad luck for the bold human, but occasionally he will win a fortune or a fairy bride.
The truth is rather more mundane. Fairy rings evolve as a group of mushrooms, or rather the supporting mycelia beneath the ground, exhaust the supplies of nutrients which the organism requires to live. As this happens the mycelia will grow outward from a central point, tapping new sources of nutrients as they do so. When mushrooms emerge, they will appear in an ever-expanding circle as they follow the trail of untapped nutrients.
Truth can be stranger than fiction
Fungi in general and mushrooms in particular are researched less than many of this planet’s other life forms. This is because they so often go undetected, lying underground as they do. Even the appearance of the mushroom or fruiting body may be fleeting, lasting only days or, in some cases, hours.
Thus it was a surprise to just about everyone to learn that the largest living organism on earth, and one of the oldest, is a gigantic honey mushroom, or Armillary ostoyae, growing underground in Oregon. Determined by DNA samples to be one coherent life form, this vast fungus covers 2200 acres to a depth of 3 feet. It is estimated to have lived nearly 2400 years. No other single living thing can match the scope of this giant fungus, unless or until a larger, similar fungus is discovered.
And that is the mystique of mushroom lore. What one knows might not be true, while what one does not know can quite literally be fatal. And in the end the truth is often, even without the presence of dancing fairies, more interesting than the myth.