Fungus Among Us

Our family spent a few hours last weekend hiking through a local wildlife preserve. Though we saw a few Northern Flickers (and more than a few chipmunks gathering acorns), it wasn’t the animal wildlife that interested us… it was the ‘wild’ life growing on fallen tree trunks and covering rocks along the path we followed.

Fungi are a kingdom of organisms which includes rusts, smuts, molds, mildews, mushrooms, and yeast. They gain energy by secreting enzymes that decompose other biological tissues. Fungi are divided into three main groups with a fourth used informally:

  • Zygomycota (molds)
  • Ascomycota (yeasts and powdery mildews)
  • Basidiomycota (mushrooms, puffballs etc.)
  • Deuteromycota (used for imperfect fungi)

Fungi are important sources for antibiotics and industrial chemicals and they’re useful for things like fermenting beverages and bread dough… but they are most valuable to the gardener as soil builders. Fungi are experts at breaking down organic matter which is very important for soil renewal.

Because fungi can’t produce their own food (photosynthesis) they sometimes form symbiotic relationships with algae. The result is lichen, a growth often seen on rocks and tree trunks. The relationship between fungus and alga allows the lichen to act as a single organism that is photosynthetic. Not quite a plant, but not an animal either! Many lichens are a food source for wildlife, others are very sensitive to environmental changes and serve as monitors of air pollution.

Other fungi, like mushrooms form symbiotic relationships with tree roots. As the mushroom’s mycelia collect nutrients from far and wide and release them to the tree roots, the tree roots provide sugar (a result of photosynthesis) as energy for the mushrooms to grow. One example of such a relationship is the much-savored truffle (an underground mushroom) and the oak, chestnut, and beech tree roots on which they grow.

Most fungi, unlike this big one is growing in our yard, aren’t visible to the naked eye. Even so, there are well over a thousand species present in a native soil sample at one time; their vegetative filaments spreading out, intersecting and forming colonies working to decompose organic matter and release nutrients. The effect? Humus: a nutrient-rich, fertile, sustainable addition for building healthy, balanced soil that supports plant growth… which in turn attracts insects, birds and other wildlife.

And we thought they were just pretty!

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  1. says

    “Freddy Fungus and Alice Algae took a lichen to each other.” Recall such being communicated by the host of a local nature walk to help describe the organisms’ relationship. Enjoyed your post, Lisa. Happy day!

  2. Kristan Parker says

    I like to make Arts and Crafts using things I’ve found in nature. There’s a park in the town where I live near the river. Can fungi, lichen and such be used in making wreaths and centerpieces? If so, is there a way to preserve their shape and colors. I have found some on fallen trees. The weather has been so mild this year, in Iowa, that I have found a lot of them. I don’t mean the ones that look like mushrooms one is use to seeing in a store. I mean the shelf looking stuff on fallen trees. Mostly white and cream colored. Maybe some grayish stuff. Also the green tiny stuff on fallen bark. I also found some beautiful bright yellow stuff earlier, but it’s gone. Is there a danger with any of this stuff? Also can you mention any other things of this nature that I can incorporate into my art? I like the unusual. I really don’t like to depend on the store bought moss and stuff that’s hard and dry. Is there any danger in handling these growths before I take it inside and start working with it? Do I dry it out, and spray it with something? I have some in a plastic bag in my car. And I washed my hands after gathering it. Can I use it or no? I’ve left it in my car, backseat, and will wait on your answer. Thank-you. Greatly appreciated.


  1. […] Mushrooms rise from the ground to help break down the remains of winter brush into soil. It’s a good thing but it also means it is time for me to start getting busy with cleanup which some do in fall, but not this wildlife gardener. I know that leaving things natural through winter is an important component in providing shelter and habitat for wildlife. And seeing them all preparing to nest this spring makes the little “untidiness” well worth it. […]

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