When you picture a mushroom, you probably imagine the stereotypical button mushroom. Small, white, and delicious when sautéed with butter.
Or maybe you imagine a functional mushroom. Perhaps you think of the ones that might help manage mental health conditions, like anxiety or depression.
No matter what pops into your mind, it’s likely that you’re thinking of some version of a fruiting body mushroom.
What if we told you that a fruiting body is made up of a few different parts? If you’re interested in learning about the entirety of a mushroom, then this is the article for you. Here we’ll tell you all about the various parts of a mushroom and the function of each one.
What Is A Mushroom?
Before we get started on mushroom anatomy, we need to explain exactly what a mushroom is, and what it is not.
The biggest misconception is that mushrooms are the only type of fungi. That is simply not true. While all mushrooms are fungi, not all fungi are mushrooms.
Fungi, as a whole, are made up of two distinct parts: fruiting bodies and mycelium.
Mushrooms are a type of fruiting body. Another name for a fruiting body is sporocarp.
In some cases, like with mushrooms, the fruiting body grows above ground. This is the part of the fungi that we can easily spot.
However, some types of fruiting bodies only grow underground. These are called truffles.
Whether they grow above or below ground, the fruiting body is responsible for the reproduction of the fungi. In nature, the fruiting bodies of fungi only grow at certain times of the year when conditions are ideal.
What Is Mycelium?
Besides the fruiting body, you should also be aware of the other part that makes up a fungus: the mycelium.
Think of mushrooms as the tip of the fungi iceberg. There is so much more going on below the surface (or ground in this case) than you know.
Mycelium is a vast, underground, root-like system. If you were to catch a glimpse of mycelium, you would see something that consists of white thread-like filaments called hyphae.
The mycelium is the source from which fruiting bodies sprout.
The primary job of mycelium is to collect water and nutrients that keep the fungus alive. It does this by breaking down organic matter, like plants, into molecules that can be more easily absorbed.
How large the mycelium can grow depends on the species. It can range from being barely visible to spreading across acres and acres.
Unlike fruiting bodies, mycelium does not have a specific blooming season and is alive year-round like the root system of a tree. Depending on environmental factors, it can produce fruiting bodies frequently. However, if conditions are not ideal, then it can remain dormant (sometimes for years!) until the time is right.
Now that you know what a mushroom is, and what it is not, we can get into the various mushroom parts.
Caps: A Natural Umbrella
First, we’ll start with the cap.
Mushroom caps, also called pileus, are the topmost part of a mushroom.
Usually, they’re shaped like an umbrella. However, certain species can have flat or spherical caps. The mushroom's stage of development can also have an impact on the shape of the cap.
Caps come in a wide range of textures and colours. These physical attributes vary depending on species and stage of development.
The underside of the cap is where the spores are produced. More accurately, this area contains the part of the mushroom that is responsible for the production.
Much like the umbrella it’s shaped like, the cap protects these spore-producing parts from outside forces.
Gills: Not the Breathing-Underwater Kind
Next is the spore-producing part of the mushroom we mentioned earlier: the gills.
Mushroom gills, known as the lamellae, are made up of thin structures that lay side by side on the underside of the cap.
This part of the mushroom plays a key role in reproduction. Gills are responsible for producing and dispersing as many spores as possible.
Although gills are the most common structure of their reproduction system, not all mushrooms have them. Some reproductive undersides look similar to sponges, such as Bolete mushrooms. Meanwhile, others have “teeth” or “needles”, like Lion’s Mane mushrooms.
Spores: Tiny, Avid Travellers
So gills produce spores, but what is a spore?
Spores are what allow the fungi to spread and reproduce. They’re tiny, unicellular cells that are produced in the gills. Unless you’re looking through a microscope, you won’t be able to see them.
If you did put them under a microscope, you would see that the most common spore colours are:
Spores are released from the mushroom once it is fully matured. They can travel far distances by either wind, water, animals, or humans. Some like to diversify their transportation and use a combination of more than one method.
Similar to a plant’s seed, the spore contains all the genetic material that is needed to grow a new fungus. It’s like each one has its own ‘Grow Your Own Fungi’ starter kit.
Once the spore has found a suitably warm, moist, and shaded area, it settles in and starts the fungi life cycle all over again.
Stems: Tall & Mighty
The last common mushroom part is the stem.
A mushroom stem, also known as the stipe, not only supports the cap but also raises it high above the ground.
The elevation is vital for the dispersal of spores. If the cap is too close to the ground, then the spores are less likely to be picked up by the wind or animals. The ability of spores to travel great distances is important for a fungus’s reproduction and the species’ survival.
In other words, the stem is the dedicated assistant to the spores. Without the stem, the spores’ job would be a lot more difficult.
However, some mushrooms have managed to bypass the stem requirement. They’ve found other ways to get the height needed, such as growing on the sides of trees.
Other Parts: Optional But Important
So that is the most common mushroom anatomy. There are a few more parts that only some mushroom species have.
These optional features include:
- Volva (Universal Veil) – A layer of tissue that protects an immature mushroom during its early growth stages. Once the mushroom breaks through the volva in later stages of growth, the remains of the Volva will remain at the base of the stem.
- Ring (Partial Veil) – Much like the volva, the ring is the remnants of a protective layer of tissue. However, this one is found higher up on the stem after it is ruptured.
So there you have it! You now know the basics of mushroom anatomy.
You can use your knowledge next time you take a dosage of functional mushrooms. Mushrooms may look simple, but now you know there’s a lot more to them than meets the eye.