The Four Categories of Mushrooms
Are you thinking about growing mushrooms, but aren’t sure where to begin? Cordyceps? Chanterelles? Reishi mushrooms? Truffles? white button –there are thousands of species of mushrooms out there! However, there are ways to categorize mushrooms that help to bring some clarity to the picture. Not only will these categories help you to decide which types of mushrooms to grow, but knowledge of them is also invaluable when it comes to foraging for mushrooms.
Mushrooms and other fungi are different from plants in that they do not contain chlorophyll, and so they don’t obtain their energy from the sun. Like animals, they have to feed off of other life to obtain nutrients for themselves.
There are four basic categories of mushrooms, and which category a mushroom falls into depends on how that mushroom obtains its nutrients.
The four categories are: saprotrophic, mycorrhizal, parasitic, and endophytic.
This overview will help you better understand these four mushroom categories — and therefore the big picture — of the mushroom world.
Parasitic mushrooms feed off plants, insects, and animals that they take on as hosts. They do not provide anything to their host and will ultimately kill the host.
A well-known example of a parasitic mushroom is the Cordyceps, which grows on the backs of insects, especially caterpillars. They obtain nutrients from their hosts until the mushroom has replaced the host’s tissue.
Some parasitic fungi even attach themselves to human beings, leading to severe infections and medical ailments, and sometimes death.
Mycorrhizal mushrooms also need plants to grow. But instead of a parasitic relationship where they feed off their host, mycorrhizal mushrooms create a mutually beneficial relationship with their host plant. In this symbiotic relationship, the mushroom receives sugar from the plant to grow. In return, the mushroom provides water to the plant to help its host thrive. Certain compounds in the mushroom also help to protect the plant from diseases.
Mycorrhizal mushrooms attach themselves to the roots of a plant, and then grow through the soil, helping to extend their host’s root system. This gives both the mushroom and the plant better access to nutrients in the soil.
Saprotrophic mushrooms generally attach themselves to dead plant matter, especially dead and decaying wood. They can decompose wood and convert it into nutrients. They also accelerate the rate of decomposition of any tree to which they attach themselves.
Saprotrophic mushrooms can be difficult to grow. They require the right amount of water and oxygen, cool temperatures, and a soil pH below 7.
One can further divide Saprotrophic fungi into two subcategories. The first subcategory is litter decomposers. Litter decomposers grow scattered throughout forests, and break down whatever plant matter happens to be available. The second subcategory is wood decay fungi, which break down the wood on dead trees.
Most saprotrophic mushrooms are litter decomposers, but one common mushroom that falls into the wood decay category is the medicinal Reishi mushroom.
Endophytic fungi are a more complex category because they can have both a parasitic and symbiotic relationship with their host’s tissue. They will take over their host’s tissue, just like a parasitic mushroom. But the relationship between the endophytic mushroom and the host will be symbiotic, like a Mycorrhizal mushroom. Endophytic mushrooms will provide hydration to the host and will aid with the flow of necessary nutrients from the soil. They will also often protect the host from diseases.
Endophytic fungi rarely produce mushrooms. They are difficult to see, and you may never knowingly encounter one. But they are all around us. Almost every plant has an endophytic infection of some kind.
There are thousands of different kinds of mushrooms, but knowing the four categories that each mushroom fits into will help you to understand and identify them going forward.
Understanding the four main types of mushrooms will also help you to decide which mushroom will be the best fit for you to forage, or to grow in your own home.
To learn more about growing mushrooms, see our article How Do Mushrooms Grow: From Farm to Grocery Store.
And to learn more about mushroom identification and foraging for wild mushrooms, read our article Mushroom Foraging — The Ultimate Guide.
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