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Get down and get fungi

Author
by Colin
Publish date
10 May 2013
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After an extended summer, cool and wet weather starts to set in, resulting in a bloom of beauty for those who know where to look. I'm talking about fungi; those things that taste so good with butter on toast, form mould on your bread, and make your feet itch!

Wood Rotter toadstool Wood Rotter (Gymnopilus junonius)
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

In the past, fungi were classified as plants. But fungi differ from plants in that they do not possess the ability to generate their own food from the sun (photosynthesis), and must obtain their energy from other sources.

Colin Silvey Left: Mycena sp. (probably M.viscidocruenta). Right: Unidentified species.
Image: Two toadstool species in Forest Gallery
Source: Museum Victoria
 

So what do fungi "eat"? Some fungi are parasitic, and feed off other living things. Some fungi parasitise plants, while some other specialized types parasitise insects, spiders and other arthropods.

Caterpillars with parasitic fungi Caterpillars (Hepialidae) infected with different types of parasitic fungi. The caterpillar on the left has been consumed by Cordyceps gunnii.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Other types of fungi are saprophytic, meaning they obtain their energy and nutrients by breaking down dead plant and animal material. This is the reason you see many growing on old and rotten logs in the forest, amongst leaf litter and on animal dung.

Two fungus species in the Forest Gallery Left: Undescribed species. Right: Gymnopilus sp.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

The fungi in these photos are referred to as macro-fungi, and belong to the phylum Basidiomycota. This group contains the well known mushrooms, toadstools and puffballs. Just last week I took these photos in our very own Forest Gallery and Milarri Garden. Many fungi spores find their way into the galleries by being transported by the wind and with soils and mulch brought in by horticultural staff. Some may even hitch a ride in on your shoes! Sometimes destructive fungus that we don't want in the galleries gets in by accident. Honey fungus (Armillaria spp.) is a parasitic fungus that attacks and kills living trees. The largest living organism in the world is a species of honey fungus called Armillaria solidipes and covers an area nearly eight and a half square kilometres! Honey fungus could ruin the Forest Gallery if left unchecked, so we constantly have to monitor the plants and soils to make sure it doesn't gain a foothold.

small red toadstool A slightly dried specimen of a Marasmius sp.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Fungi start life as tiny spores, and colonize their chosen substrate with small threads called hyphae.

Mycelium growing in leaf litter Mycelium of leaf litter fungus.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Hyphae form large masses of mycelium, which decompose dead materials using special enzymes and chemicals.

Two fungus species in the Forest Gallery Left: Stropharia sp. Right: Amanita sp.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

When the fungus is ready to reproduce, if forms a fruit (mushroom!).

Two fungus species in the Forest Gallery Gymnopilus junonius at the rear, with a slightly eaten Rhodocollybia sp. in front. Right: Probably Agaricus sp.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Many animals like to eat fungi, including slugs and snails, insects, small mammals, and humans! Uneaten fungi decompose to a thick slime rapidly.

small white toadstool Lepiota sp.
Image: Colin Silvey
Source: Museum Victoria
 

Some fungi can be very toxic, and very hard to identify. You should never eat fungi that you can't correctly identify. There are many groups of fungi enthusiasts that conduct fungi collecting trips and provide help in the correct identification of edible species. The Royal Botanic Gardens Melbourne run a database of fungi sightings called Fungimap, which is a great resource for people who enjoy the fungus among us. So, get out there and have some fun, guys! (Sorry.) 

Many thanks for identifications to Dr Teresa Lebel, National Herbarium of Victoria, Royal Botanical Gardens

Links and further reading:

Fuhrer, B. (2005). A field guide to Australian fungi. Bloomings Books, Melbourne.

Fungi at the Australian National Botanic Garden

Plants, algae and fungi of Victoria via Royal Botanic Garden

Field Naturalists Club of Victoria Fungi Group

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