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Do fungi get enough respect in our planet’s ecosystem?

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Years ago — actually, a long time ago — I took my first course at the New York Botanical Garden with Gary Lincoff.

Why I started with a course on fungi, I no longer remember. What I do remember is being overwhelmed by a very alien group of organisms and developing a healthy respect for correct identification.

I had never heard of morels (Morchella esculenta) before, apparently a sought-after gourmet mushroom, with the straightforward appearance of a brain stuck on top of a stem. Unfortunately, there were no nearby abandoned apple orchards where they were likely to be found for me to test out my newfound knowledge.

I then leaned about an unfortunate look-like called a “false morel” — the Gyromitra esculenta. We all know there are poisonous fungi, popularly called toadstools, out there. But, the false morel is something special, containing the chemical monomethylhydrazine — used today as rocket fuel.

That basically cured me of eating wild mushrooms without an expert looking over my shoulder. Despite that small drawback, fungi are varied enough in shape and color to continue to fascinate.

Taking a daily constitutional is a great way to view environmental changes through the seasons. Last year, I found a most impressive mushroom on Fieldston Road I thought would be perfect for this column. Alas, none of the photos I took were clear enough to get an expert identification. Despite repeated trips back to the same location, I have not seen its like this year.
However, when I saw the mushroom I included with this week’s column, I could not resist the chance to write about it.

Recently, I joined the Facebook group for the New York Mycological Society. While personally pleased with some of my local finds, the photos on the Facebook page — some complete with identification — were astonishing both in variety and in many cases, their beauty.

One morning, as I was scrolling through the uploads from the previous day, this mushroom that looked like nothing other than a muffin oozing raspberry jelly was the pièce de résistance. I expected some whimsical common name, but it generally goes by devil’s tooth or bleeding tooth, although I did see some reference to strawberries and cream, which seems more fitting.

Its scientific name is Hydnellum peckii, which certainly is not very magical. Hydnellum derives from the Greek hudnon referring to edible mushrooms, particularly truffles. Peckii is in honor of Charles Peck, who was a towering figure in the systemization and professionalization of mycology as a botanist at the New York State Museum in Albany.

The red sap forming the “jelly” is the result of high root pressure, which diminishes with age, and it’s then that beautiful mushroom turns brown.
Today there are five (sometimes broken into six) recognized kingdoms of life.

Animalia and plantae are two that we all are familiar with. At one time, it was unclear to scientists exactly where fungi fit in. They seemed more plant-like than animal-like, although today, despite the consensus that they more resemble animals than plants, they have their own kingdom, quaintly named fungi.
The ancient Israelites already recognized the ambiguity of mushrooms by requiring a blessing, which does not apply to other vegetables or fruits.

The name “fungi” comes directly from the Latin fungus, derived from the Greek sphongos meaning “sponge.” The study of fungi is called “mycology” from the Greek mykes, meaning “mushroom.”

The fungi kingdom is divided into seven phyla of which the Basidiomycota — the club fungi — and the Ascomycota, the sac fungi, are the larger specimens. The prime differentiating characteristic is the location of the spores.

The ascomycetes have an ascus cell filled with eight spores. The basidiomycetes have a cell called the “basidia” with four protuberances, each containing one spore, making a total of four spores.

Our Hydnellum peckii is a basiomycete from the family Bankeraceae, which grow on the ground and form mycorrhizal relationships with trees from the Pinaceae and Fagaceae (pea family).

The only other important fact to know about fungi is that the mushroom that we see above ground is merely the fruiting body, which disperses the reproductive spore.

The real body of the fungal organism contains tiny threads called “hyphae.” These hyphae grow into a mass called a “mycelium,” which can live for many years and sometimes reach great size and weight.

Many of these mycelia have a symbiotic relationship with specific trees, sharing nutrients and minerals, creating a mycorrhizal network.
Since H. peckii are usually found in the northern United States and Canada, I am afraid that I am unlikely to find one of those beauties for myself!

Have a thought or comment for Sura Jeselsohn? Email her at greenscenesura@gmail.com.

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