If you have ever gone for a hike through the woods in New Hampshire, chances are you’ve come across a wide variety of mushrooms on the forest floor. Although I am not a mushroom expert, I decided to go out and search a few different areas throughout the state to find as many different kinds of mushrooms as possible.
One of the first lessons that I learned on my search was that mushrooms come in many different shapes, sizes, and colors, some of which are edible and delicious while others are highly toxic and deadly.
Some ways to identify mushrooms include looking at the stem (its shape, presence of a ring, etc.), the cap (its shape, presence of a universal veil, etc.), the gills (or lack there of), and the habitat (deciduous forest, mixed forest, etc.).
Some mushrooms are almost impossible to tell apart, while other types of mushrooms can vary so greatly from one to another that they look like a completely different species. For example, some types of mushrooms have the ability to “open” and “close” their caps, giving them distinctively different looks.
A young mushroom, known as a pinhead, can be as small as 1cm tall while a fully grown mushroom can be over 15cm tall. Mushrooms can have the same variety in the size of their cap as well.
The large variety makes identifying some mushrooms very difficult, even for some mycologists who study mushrooms. This is why it is strongly suggested that people do not collect and eat wild mushrooms without having an expert with them or being 100% confident in the identification of the fungus.
While they may look like a type of plant, mushrooms are actually a type of fungal growth, like mildew or mold. Mushrooms are, however, more closely related to animals than plants. In actuality, however, fungi themselves make up one of the five major kingdoms.
Mushrooms are considered a type of fungus because they do not contain any chlorophyll, which is needed for photosynthesis. Instead of gaining energy from the sun, mushrooms receive their nutrients by decomposing dead plants and animals on the forest floor. Decomposition is the process of rotting or decaying organic materials.
Although the words “fungus” and “decomposition” are not always considered good, the role that mushrooms play in the ecosystem are extremely important. If not for the decomposition caused by mushrooms, nitrogen would not find its way back into the soil leading to decreased plant growth.
Next time you go out for a jaunt in the woods, keep an eye out for one of these fun little guys! (Pun Intended)