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The Secret World of Wild Mushrooms

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Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.

Wild Mushrooms: Diverse, Edible, Toxic, Beautiful

Wild mushrooms have been a great locally sourced food that is nutritious and free. The mushroom collection is a kind of nature therapy for the urbanized human society, yet diminishing from our local culture fast. The abundance of toxic lookalikes of edible wild mushrooms combined with our eroded skill to correctly identify the edible ones almost put a full stop to the practice of mushroom collecting. However, our forests and wilderness remain a rich haven of edible mushrooms such as shaggy parasol, morel mushroom, chanterelle mushroom, button mushroom, meadow mushroom, puffball mushroom, and horse mushroom.

It is too great a risk to consume a mushroom if you are not 100% sure that it is edible and is not a toxic lookalike. However, there is no harm in feasting upon the beauty and diversity of the wild mushrooms and there is the opportunity for a fascinating hobby in it if you love nature and revel in its charm and hues.

In the Western Ghats, the most majestic mountain ranges of South India, and a biodiversity hotspot, there are stretches of farmlands fostered by the monsoon rains. If one loves the rain-drenched freshness of a farm ecosystem in the shades of a rain forest (and could dare the swarming mosquitos), one can find a few hidden treasures here- populations of wild mushrooms donning all possible colors and shapes.

They thrive mostly on the damp floor and fallen and decaying wood parts. There are colonies of them as well as loners. A few of them can be identified by a mushroom enthusiast easily but a few retain their mysterious identity until scrutinized by an expert botanist. However, simply looking at them is worth the walk. On a rainy day, I carried a camera with me and photographed a few.

Of the around 14000 species of mushrooms found and identified from around the world, 750 species can be found in the Western Ghats. Here I showcase a few from that 750 odd mushroom species collection of this forest region, all of them photographed in a homestead farm in Kerala.



When It Rains..

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Bracket Fungi

There are between 50000 and 140000 mushroom species in the world; many of which are yet to be found, identified and named. Mushrooms play a significant role in the ecosystem as decomposers of organic matter, source of nutrition, and source of medicine. Since ancient times, humans have consumed mushrooms, the very act gaining a name for itself, mycophagy. The Greeks called mushrooms 'sons of gods' because of the sudden and dramatic appearances that mushrooms make after a thunderstorm.

Bracket fungi are a parasitic mushroom species. They are also called polypores and they have a comparatively hard and wood-like body. They can be found on live and dead tree trunks and are easily identifiable. It is the bracket-shaped bodies of these fungi that led them to be named bracket fungi. This group of fungi comes in many breathtaking colors and gradation. They are not as fragile as other mushrooms are. You can put some varnish on them and keep them for many years intact in your drawing room or collectibles shelf. Ganoderma, the well-known fungus used in Chinese medicine, is a bracket fungus. There is a misconception that bracket fungi infect live tree branches and destroy them. The fact is that this fungus infects the branch of a tree only when that branch is already dead. By rotting the dead parts, these fungi actually recycle nutrients for the tree, and this relationship between the fungi and the tree is a mutually beneficial one.

Bracket Fungi

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mushroom-mania
mushroom-mania

Galerina Marginata

Galerina Marginata is a mushroom found in Asia and in Australia, Europe, and North America. This is not an edible mushroom though it looks very similar to certain edible mushrooms. The cap of this mushroom changes its shape from conical to near flat as it ages. The cap color also fades with age. These mushrooms have a rusty brown spore print whereas the edible ones have either white or dark brown/purple-brown spore print. Still, it is very difficult to differentiate between the toxic and edible lookalikes.

Galerina Marginata

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The Curious Case of Puffball Mushroom

Lycoperdaceae mushroom is commonly named puffball mushroom. This has the shape of a pestle. Usually, this mushroom is a loner found growing on the ground. Most of this family of mushrooms are edible but there are certain impostor mushrooms that imitate puffball mushrooms and if accidentally eaten, can be fatal. These are Death Cap mushrooms and the Destroying Angels. This mushroom species grows upon decaying wood, on the ground, and in grasslands. To identify the edible one, the mushroom is vertically cut into two halves. If the inside of the mushroom is pure white, with no color or markings, it is safe to eat. Puffball mushroom pieces when put in soups, just look like Tofu. Calvacin, a chemical found inside puffball mushrooms, is now being investigated for its potential as a cancer drug. A curious feature of this mushroom is that it can grow quite large, even to the size of a football, and this growth can take only 4-5 hours when it rains. The actual vegetative part of a puffball mushroom stays underground, spread in the soil like a white root network. Plucking a puffball mushroom does not affect this mother fungus and it is capable of developing into a puffball again.

Puffball Mushroom

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Some Other Unidentified Beauties of the Western Ghats

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mushroom-mania

Mushroom Facts

Termite Hill Mushrooms

Humans are known to cultivate mushrooms but very few of us know that termites also cultivate mushrooms. These mushrooms are seen on termite hills and are cultivated by termites to eat in order to supplement their diet with “enzymes and nitrogen”. Once the mushrooms are fully grown, the termites start eating them. Western Ghats forests have plenty of termite hills in them. Even the homesteads in its watershed area have many. People in these regions believe the abandoned termite hills are inhabited by snakes and as they worship snakes as gods, they would ask their kids not to disturb the termite hills.

Tree-Specific Mushrooms

There are certain mushrooms that have a tree preference and they cannot be seen under any other tree than its preferred tree. There is a variety of Bolete mushrooms that is seen only under Ash trees. Though it is not certain yet, this tree preference could be because these mushrooms exist symbiotically with a small creature called leaf curl ash aphids, found on Ash trees only.

Anonymous and Thriving

There are thousands of unidentified fungi species still on earth and it is reported, scientists are identifying about 1200 new species every year. Hitherto unknown varieties of the very popular Porcini mushroom were identified even in a grocery store in London when scientists put edible mushroom samples collected from London stores to lab testing. This incident reminds us that extreme caution should be taken when choosing the mushrooms on your platter.

The Largest Living Being on Earth

BBC Earth reported that a honey fungus 2400 years old, living underground and spread over a 3.8-kilometer geographic area in the Blue Mountains of Oregon is considered as the largest living organism on the planet. Armillaria Solidipes is the scientific name of this fungus. It becomes visible to the eyes, or at least a part of it when in Fall, small mushroom caps pop out from this mushroom granny of the underworld.


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mushroom-mania

Solidipes Mushrooms

Coming back to the biodiversity of Western Ghats mushrooms, look at these tiny mushrooms growing on decaying organic matter. That brings to mind the size diversity of different mushrooms. There are friendly and sociable mushrooms that co-exist very closely with other species members. The giant mushroom, Armillaria Solidipes, had caused an entire forest stretch to die out in Oregon. This incident brought the attention of scientists to Solidipes mushroom and studies revealed that the mycelia of the Solidipes mushroom bind together to form a single individual fungus. One might wonder how such a combined fungi group could be considered an individual at all. But the definition of an individual organism is based on the ability of its cells to communicate with each other and coordinate actions, a definition which Solidipes perfectly fits in.

Hymenoscyphus Fructigenus is the potential contestant for the smallest mushroom on earth. They grow on beechnuts, acorns, etc., and are found in North America.

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History of Mushroom Picking

Mushroom picking history goes back at least to the upper Palaeolithic era (about 40000 years ago). It was the dental examination of a fossilized human from that period that proved that they ate mushrooms. China and Rome were two major mushroom consumers of the ancient world and Romans called mushrooms the food of Gods. In Rome, only the rich could afford to eat mushrooms. Many cultures like the Mayans, Vedic culture, and Nordic culture used psychedelic fungi in religious rituals. Milky mushrooms, button mushrooms, Porcini mushrooms, and Oyster mushrooms are the most important cultivated varieties. Some other edible species are very difficult to cultivate. Polland is a well-known mycophilic (mushroom-loving) country. Mushrooms picked from forests still are a part of their Christmas supper. Polich local markets abound in these delicacies.


Oyster Lookalikes

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mushroom-mania

Mushrooms Bring Rain

Ants and frogs taking refuge under the umbrella of a mushroom when it suddenly rains; sound familiar? Our fairy tales are full of these images! Such tales tell us mushrooms grow in size when it rains. What if mushrooms can also make it rain? In 2016, the reputed science magazine, Scientific American reported that the millions of mushroom spores floating in our atmosphere provide the solid surface for water to condense, thus enabling rain cloud formation. The mushroom spores are not the lone agents in this process but they take a part along with dirt particles, pollen, and so on. Anyway, they have earned a name as “rain seeds”.

The rest of my mushroom stories and mushroom pictures I am going to store away for another time. Next time when you walk outside after it rains, do keep a lookout for these delicate beauties that can often outperform flowers in their grace and poise.



References

Dr.Anand, T. and Pereira, G.N., (September 27, 2008), The fascinating world of mushrooms, daijiworld.com, Retrieved from http://www.daijiworld.com/chan/exclusive_arch.asp?ex_id=960

mushroomexpert.com

earthplanet.org

Biodiversity in the western ghats: An information kit, nzdl.org, Retrieved from http://www.nzdl.org/gsdlmod?e=d-00000-00---off-0hdl--00-0----0-10-0---0---0direct-10---4-------0-1l--11-en-50---20-about---00-0-1-00-0--4----0-0-11-10-0utfZz-8-00&cl=CL1.2&d=HASHd10071ff5b9a81a2180c80.6.7&x=1

Boletinellus merulioides, (n.d.), Mushroomexpert.com, Retrieved from http://www.mushroomexpert.com/boletinellus_merulioides.html

You may have been eating mushrooms that were unknown to science, (n.d.), Smithsonian.com, Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/you-may-have-been-eating-mushrooms-unknown-science-180951974/

You may have been eating mushrooms that were unknown to science, (n.d.), Smithsonian.com, Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/you-may-have-been-eating-mushrooms-unknown-science-180951974/

The Largest Living Thing on Earth is a Humungous Fungus, BBC Earth. 2014.

We Know So Little About Mushrooms That Unidentified Species are Hiding in PLain Sight, Willy Blackmore. takepart.com.

Frazer, J. (February 24, 2016), Made by rain, mushrooms also make it, Scientificamerican.com, Retrieved from https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/artful-amoeba/made-by-rain-mushrooms-also-make-it/

History of Mushroom Consumption and Its Impact on Traditional View on Mycobiota: An Example from Poland, by Marcin Kotowski, 2019.


© 2018 Deepa

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