Mushrooms are not just delicious additions to diets; they have medicinal uses, too! They’ve been around for a long time and have been used in traditional medicine for millennia.
Many people who enjoy the tastiness and medicinal benefits of this gift from nature are only familiar with the cap and fleshy part of the fungi. They know little to nothing about other parts of a mushroom. After all, what difference do the other parts make?
Well, it does make a lot of difference, as you’ll soon discover in this article.
Learning the Parts of a Mushroom is Important: Here’s Why
If your interest in mushrooms is limited to admiring and taking pictures of them, you probably don’t need to give any serious thought to the different parts. However, if you’re interested in foraging for or growing mushrooms, you will need at least a brief overview.
For starters, these small living organisms are not plants even though they may look like one. Also, not all mushrooms are edible or safe to ingest. Some are poisonous, while other species can alter your state of consciousness. But you probably already know that.
What many people don’t know is how to identify the key differences between mushrooms. And mushroom identification begins with a knowledge of the various parts of a mushroom.
So without further delay, let’s take a look at the various parts of a mushroom and their purpose.
The Basic Parts of a Mushroom
Typically, a mushroom has six different parts. These include:
Cap: This is the part that gives the fungi its umbrella shape. The cap comes in a variety of colors, including white, brown, and yellow. In the same way that umbrellas protect us from the heat of the sun, rain, and other harsh weather conditions, the mushroom cap protects the pores or gills where mushroom spores are produced. And what are spores? Well, consider them as mushroom “seeds,” although technically speaking mushrooms don’t have seeds.
Gills, Pores, or Teeth: Have you ever seen a fish’s gills? Mushroom gills look something like that. The gills are also called teeth or pores. The gill is a structure that appears right under the mushroom cap and produces spores.
Ring: The ring (also known as the annulus) is a partial veil that is left on the stem. It is an extra layer of protection for the spores that grow when the mushroom is still very young. When the cap grows out and breaks through the veil, the remnant is what forms the ring around the stem.
Stipe or Stem: The stipe or stem is the long, vertical part of the mushroom that holds the cap above the ground. Mushrooms growing in the wild propagate when the wind scatters the spores. For this reason, the cap and gills need to be held high enough from ground level by the stem, so that when the spores drop down, they can be carried away easily by wind.
Note that in some mushrooms, the spores grow right down the sides of the stem. Oyster mushrooms are a good example. Also, the way that a stem is attached to the cap can be an important clue in identifying a mushroom. For example, a morel’s stem will attach to the inside of the hollow cap, whereas a false morel’s stem will attach to the bottom of the cap.
Volva: Mushrooms are covered in a protective veil as they grow out of the ground. This protective veil is called the volva. The mushroom pushes through the volva as it matures, leaving parts of the veil at the bottom of the stem.
Mycelium: The mycelium is a collection of thin hair-like strands that grow outward and downward into the soil in search of nutrients. The mycelium of mushrooms acts like the roots in flowering plants and can produce new mushrooms when the conditions are suitable.
Did You Know that Mushrooms have Gravitropic Gills?
Self-preservation is encoded in the core of every living organism, including mushrooms! This is why mushrooms have stems that lift the caps and gills above the ground — to allow the spores to disperse effectively.
In a typical mushroom, the gills face downward toward the ground. But did you know that the gills on mushrooms can sense if they are oriented differently?
Here’s what that means:
Usually, store-bought mushrooms have the caps along with the gills cut and stored upside down. Storing them this way allows consumers to have a clear view of the gills before buying. Interestingly, the gills are intelligent enough to sense that they are upside down! Before long, they will start to rearrange themselves so that they get back into the original vertical position.
Now, that’s pretty impressive!
Why do the gills behave that way? Self-preservation! Staying in an upside-down position will not let the spores spread, which will mean the end of the mushroom. However, even if you cut the cap of the mushroom with its gills off from the stem, the gills are still very sensitive. This is why they can reorient themselves into the vertical position to allow the spores to drift or be carried by the wind for propagation.
Here’s Something You Can Try at Home
The next time you see the cap of a mushroom turned upside down, try to observe how the gills behave. You can even go out and pick a few mushrooms right now, cut off the caps, and store them upside down in a container.
Observe how the gills are (you can take pictures of them). Come back after 24 to 36 hours, and you will notice dramatic changes in the position of the gills.
Beyond Tasty “Meat”
Take your interest in mushrooms one step beyond tasty and healthier meat alternatives. Indeed, mushrooms are packed full of rich and useful nutrients, and you can learn all about them in our article Mushroom Calories Guide – Shedding Light on Their Nutritional Value.
However, if you want to cultivate mushrooms, so you have a greater variety than are available in the store, you will need to learn the various parts of these organisms. You will then understand the instructions that come in mushroom grow kits.
For more information on foraging for mushrooms, see our article Mushroom Foraging — The Ultimate Guide.
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