First things first, let’s make this clear: fungi and mushrooms are not synonymous.
Put another way, all mushrooms are fungi, but not all fungi produce mushrooms.
Still with us?
Don’t worry, we’ll break it down.
The Fungal Kingdom (or Queendom)
In biology, the rank known as kingdom is the second highest taxonomic rank, just below domain. More simply, other than domain, kingdom is the broadest category of biological life.
You may not be familiar with taxonomy, but you’re definitely familiar with kingdoms like the animal kingdom and plant kingdom. Fungi have their own kingdom, too.
In taxonomy, the next broadest category after kingdom is phylum. In the fungal kingdom, it’s commonly agreed upon (for now) that there are seven distinct phyla. Following phylum in taxonomic rank is class, order, family, genus, and finally, species. Usually, when the scientific names of plants, fungi, and animals are referenced, only the genus and species is necessary.
For example, humans are oftentimes referred to as Homo (genus) sapiens (species) and the common button mushroom you find in grocery stores would be referred to by mycologists as Agaricus bisporus.
A Fruitful Analogy
So now that you understand fungi a bit more, what about mushrooms? Let’s use an apple tree as an analogy. Most of us understand that when we eat an apple, we are eating a fruit. But what’s in that fruit other than sweet, tart goodness?
Seeds. And if those seeds someday germinate, what do they create? Roots. Roots then become trees, trees bear fruit, and the cycle goes around for another spin.
Now, let’s picture a fungus. Fungi begin (or end, depending on your perspective) as spores, which eventually germinate and grow into dense collections of hyphae (filamentous, tubular structures one cell wall thick) known as mycelium. In the apple tree analogy, fungal spores are akin to apple seeds and the mycelium is analogous to a tree’s root system.
Yet for most fungi, this is where the story ends. Thousands of fungal species never produce mushrooms, which are akin to an apple and are the reproductive organ of certain fungi. It is only the mushroom producing fungi that you see dotting the forest floor.
The Fungi Underfoot
To put all of this into perspective, mycologists currently estimate there are between 2.2 million and 3.8 million species of fungi, but only 150,000 have been described, only 2,100 are known as edible species, and only about 1% of those 2,100 species are actively cultivated, wild harvested, or colloquially known as “choice” or “gourmet” mushrooms for their revered flavor.
And though some expect the number of medicinal mushrooms to balloon as more research delves into the space, the science is still in its infancy and only about 1,000 mushrooms have been discovered to possess medicinal properties. In a very real sense, fungi that produce mushrooms are more the exception than the rule.
So next time you’re walking in the forest, consider that in a single cubic inch of healthy forest soil, there can be more than eight miles of mycelium.
That mushroom you spot may be quite the find but the true fungal abundance doesn’t lie in the mushroom, but in the millions of species underfoot slowly churning the cycle of life ever forward.
- Radical Mycology, Peter McCoy
Author: Sam Blackstone