They come in multiple shapes, sizes, and colors and can be found in various habitats.
So how can we even determine which mushrooms are edible, poisonous, or medicinal?
The Four Categories of Mushrooms
Well, there is a standard way to categorize mushrooms within four categories, which will help clarify the picture.
These four categories of mushrooms help mushroom hunters identify mushrooms.
And if you are thinking about growing mushrooms, they can also help you decide which types of mushrooms to grow.
Mushrooms and other fungi are different from plants in that they do not contain chlorophyll, so they don’t obtain energy from the sun. Like animals, mushrooms have to feed off nutrients from the soil or other life to obtain nutrients for themselves.
How a mushroom obtains its nutrients determines which of the four categories of mushrooms it falls into.
So what are these four categories of mushrooms?
The four categories are: saprotrophic, mycorrhizal, parasitic, and endophytic.
Each type of mushroom plays an important role in the ecosystem. Some are edible, and some can even be used for medicinal purposes.
This overview will help you better understand these four mushroom categories — and, therefore, the big picture — of the mushroom world.
Parasitic mushrooms and fungi feed off plants, insects, and animals they take on as hosts. They do not provide anything to their host and will eventually kill the host plant.
A well-known example of parasitic fungi 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 can even attach themselves to humans, leading to severe infections, medical ailments, and sometimes death.
As unappetizing as this may sound, some mushrooms have medicinal qualities in the parasitic category. The above-mentioned Chaga has been made into a healthy tea for thousands of years. People pay hundreds of dollars per pound for genuine cordyceps from the Himalayas. And lion’s mane is reputed to have brain-boosting properties.
Mycorrhizal mushrooms also need plants to grow. But instead of a parasitic relationship where they feed off of their host, mycorrhizal fungi create a mutually beneficial relationship with their host plant.
In this symbiotic relationship, mycorrhizal mushrooms receive sugar from the plant that they have attached themselves to grow. In return, the mushroom provides water to the plant to help its host thrive.
Certain compounds in mycorrhizal mushrooms also help to protect the plant from diseases.
Mycorrhizal fungi can also 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.
Many common edible mushrooms fall under the mycorrhizal fungus category. Mycorrhizal mushrooms are not as commonly grown as saprotrophic mushrooms, as it is difficult to create the right conditions for these mushrooms to thrive. But they can be found in the wild and are highly valued by gourmet cooks. Some are considered to be delicacies. The best-known mycorrhizal mushroom is the delicious chanterelle.
To learn more about mycorrhizal mushrooms, look at this article on Grocycle.com.
Saprotrophic mushrooms generally attach themselves to dead plant matter, especially dead and decaying wood. Some are litter decomposers, and some are wood decay fungi.
Saprotrophic mushrooms play a vital role in the ecosystem by breaking down dead organic matter and returning vital nutrients to the soil. Thus, a saprotrophic mushroom can decompose wood and convert it into nutrients.
A saprotrophic mushroom can also accelerate the decomposition rate of any tree to which it attaches itself.
Saprotrophic fungi can be difficult to grow. The shiitake mushroom can take a lot of effort to grow. They require precise amounts of water and oxygen, cool temperatures, and a soil pH below 7.
Litter Decomposers and Wood Decay Fungi
One can further divide the saprotrophic fungi category into two subcategories. The first subcategory is litter decomposers. Litter decomposers grow scattered throughout forests and break down whatever plant matter is available. The second subcategory is wood decay fungi, which break down the wood on dead trees. Shiitake mushrooms fall into this latter category.
Most saprotrophic mushrooms are litter decomposers, but one type of medicinal mushroom that falls into the wood decay category is the famous reishi mushroom.
To learn more about the amazing world of Saprotrophic mushrooms, check out this article from the New Brunswick Museum in Canada.
Endophytic fungi are a more complex category because they can have a parasitic AND symbiotic relationship with their host’s tissue.
Endophytic mushrooms will take over their host’s tissue like a parasitic mushroom. But the relationship between the endophytic fungi and the host will also be symbiotic, like a Mycorrhizal mushroom. Endophytic mushrooms will provide hydration to the host and 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.
Endophytic fungi have not been as widely studied as mushrooms in the more visible mycorrhizal and saprotrophic categories. Still, they are an important area of research due to their potential benefits to their host plants and the environment.
There are thousands of different kinds of mushrooms, but knowing which of the four categories a mushroom you are trying to identify fits into will give you a big head start on mushroom identification in the future. Familiarizing yourself with these categories is the starting point for understanding mushrooms.
Familiarizing yourself with these categories will also help you better understand the process of growing mushrooms in your own home. To learn more about how the mushrooms you eat are grown, 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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