Mush(room) to Grow: Mycology 101

It is spring here at the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden. The ground is warming, birds are singing, and it’s mushroom season! These fragile organisms are often overlooked or viewed as a pest, but we at the Zoo have a pension for these slimy, little marvels. The vast collection of flora upkept by the Zoo’s horticultural team is host to a few hundred of the over ten thousand known mushroom species, and they can be split into four basic categories – saprophytic, mycorrhizal, parasitic and endophytic mushrooms.

Saprophytic mushrooms eat dead material utilizing acids and enzymes. Mycorrhizal is a class of fungi that has a symbiotic relationship with plants. Wrapping around root systems, the fungi receive sugars, and in return, they transfer nutrients and minerals from plant-to-plant. Some farmers will even use these mushrooms in their soil to increase crop yield. Parasitic mushrooms include the honey mushroom, which can be found in the Zoo’s Oklahoma Trails habitat. This type of mushroom will invade their host, utilize its nutrients and eventually kill it. Endophytic types of fungi do not produce mushrooms but often act in a symbiotic fashion with plants.

Honey mushroom, photo: Seth Kerr
 

So, what are mushrooms? In short, mushrooms are the reproductive form of a fungus. The real body of a fungus is called mycelium. Mycelium looks like tiny white fibers, a sort of root system. These fibers or “hyphae” of the mycelial colony are a veritable waste treatment facility. They are among the only organisms that can break down the lignan found in wood and minerals in rocks. Some oyster mushrooms can even digest hydrocarbons found in oil products and reduce them to harmless carbon over time. Many of us are predisposed to thinking that mushrooms are dangerous, creepy things to be avoided, but most fungi are simply cleaning our messes and eating up all of the dead materials that would otherwise pile up endlessly. Mushrooms have also been known to help increase plant growth by transferring nutrients from one tree to another.

Mycelium, photo: Seth Kerr
 

Are mushrooms dangerous? Everybody knows to be wary of mushrooms, but why exactly? Many mushrooms contain harmful toxins. Most will only make you feel sick to your stomach, but some can cause organ failure in very small quantities. There are many shapes and sizes of mushrooms and some delicious ones look identical to their poisonous cousin. This is why you must be careful when selecting the right mushroom. Even when you find an edible variety of mushroom, many of us simply lack the enzymes necessary to break down the flesh of a mushroom. This lack of enzymes can make you sick to your stomach. Another reason to be careful is the above-stated superpower of mushrooms to digest nearly anything including rocks. Mushrooms can remove metals and toxins, such as lead and arsenic, from the soil. The rule is to be discerning, certain and perform every check imaginable, including consulting an expert before eating.

Jelly mushroom, photo: Seth Kerr
 

Where can you find mushrooms? Mushrooms can be found everywhere! They are high in trees and spring from the Earth. They love straw, mulch and sometimes they infect insects. The first step is to find these food sources, mainly damaged trees, dead trees or dead plant material. The next step is to look for rain and a change in temperature. The exact formula for change in humidity, moisture and temperature to produce fruit varies for every mushroom. So, on your next visit to the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden, look for a spot of rain, and keep an eye out for our slimy friends.

- Seth Kerr, Horticulture Technician

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