What do mold, mildew, yeast, mushrooms, and rust (the plant kind) all have in common? (Pssst. Check the title of this post.) You got it! They're all a type of fungus!
I just finished reading a fun middle grade mystery novel entitled The Mutant Mushroom Takeover by Summer Rachel Short so fungus is on my brain (though hopefully not literally since that's part of the problem in the book). I've always loved photographing and learning about fungus out in the wild. They're fascinating organisms. The novel in question builds on the frighteningly real behavior of one kind of fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, which has been called a "zombie fungus" because it takes over the bodies of ants in order to spread. The largest organism in the world is also a fungus, but we'll come back to that ...
First, what is a fungus?
A fungus is a special type of organism apart from plants and animals. All known living things, called organisms, belong to one of six kingdoms. You can think of them as branches on the tree of life, as shown in one illustration below. Each kingdoms also breaks down into multiple levels of subgroups defined by certain shared characteristics. Species make up the lowest subgroups in each kingdom. (We, humans, are a species in the Animalia kingdom.) Today, scientists know about 144,000 species of fungus, or members of the Fungi kingdom. (Plants make up yet another kingdom.)
Are all fungi edible?
The Fungi kingdom includes about 14,000 species of mushroom, most of which are NOT edible, meaning they are not fit to be eaten because they are poisonous. (That's why you should never eat a mushroom you find unless you can identify it and confirm it is not poisonous. Warning! Many edible mushrooms have dangerous lookalikes.) People often refer to nonedible mushrooms, particularly the kind with red umbrella caps with white spots, as toadstools.
Why do fungi matter?
Well, aside from the fact that all living things matter because all living things affect one another, fungi do some cool things. (Ahem, other than zombifying ants.) Many fungi are decomposers. They break down dead organic material and turn it back into food for plants, which, in turn, helps plants grow to feed many animals, including people. So, in a way, they're the ultimate recyclers along with other decomposers. No waste, right? (Scientists have even found a fungus that breaks down plastics!)
Fungi are also communication facilitators. Wait, what? You're probably reading this blog post online, which means you're tapped into a vast network of wires, computers, and signals that store and ferry bits of information. It's called the Internet. Fungi have similar networks made up of underground fibers or strands called mycelium that connect not only the parts of the fungus that you see above ground (like mushrooms) but also many plants. The mycelial strands intertwine with tree and other plant roots. These mycelial, or mycorrhizal, networks enable plants to share water and nutrients as well as to send signals that convey important information about disease and other issues. In short, trees like the mighty redwoods as well as other plants use fungi to talk to one another.
You already know you can eat some fungi. You might also know that you use certain kinds of yeast to bake bread. But did you know that some medicines are made from fungi? Penicillin, an important antibiotic used to treat many infections, is a kind of mold. Other fungi might hold treatments and cures for other illnesses. Thousands of new species of fungi are identified each year. (Of course, some fungi can also cause diseases like ringworm and Athlete's foot, and some kinds of mold, like black mold, can also be deadly.)
Some types of fungus are also bioluminescent, meaning they "glow in the dark" like fireflies and certain undersea creatures. Then there's the zombifying effect of different kinds of Ophiocordyceps. If you're curious how that admittedly deadly (to the ants and some other insects) process works, check it out ...
Finally, what was that about the world's largest organism? Beneath the Malheur Forest in Oregon stretches the body of a humongous fungus called Armillaria ostoyae, also known as the honey mushroom. It covers (or undercovers) about about 3.5 square miles. Unfortunately, it has lethal consequences for the trees, but it produces edible mushrooms. You can find Armillaria in other parts of the world, too!
So, aside from saying fun things like "fungus among us," fungi have some amazing traits and make essential contributions to life on Earth. They also come in all kinds of remarkable shapes, sizes, colors, and textures. My fascination with them began by stumbling on so many different kinds while hiking.
Okay, ready for some books? I mentioned one middle grade novel at the top of the post, but here are a few more super-FUNgus books to check out:
Fungus Is Among Us by Joy Keller and Erica Salcedo
This rhyming romp through the woods is a beautifully illustrated and delightful introduction to some of the many different members of the Fungi kingdom. You'll get to see a variety of fungi as well as learn how fungi make fairy circles!
This nonfiction picture book follows the standard D.K. format with lots of images complemented by lots of text blurbs that provide information about the fungus world. It might not be a bedtime read-aloud for most folks but it's a great book to flip through, reference, and read in snippets to learn about "the weird and wonderful kingdom of fungi."
Be a Tree! by Maria Gianferrari and Felicita Sala
Fungus makes a special guest appearance in the pages of this lyrical book celebrating the life of trees.
Mushroom Rain by Laura K. Zimmermann and Jamie Green
This one might be my favorite recommendation of the day. I can't love the illustrations in this book enough, although the previous titles are also gorgeous. The lyrical text explores the diversity of mushrooms that pop up after a spring rain and examines other aspects of these amazing organisms, including their underground mycelia.
Mushroom in the Rain by Mirra Ginsburg, José Aruego, and Ariane Dewey
I stumbled on this 1974 book while looking up pictures for the previous one. I haven't read it but it looks fun, and I just put it on reserve at the library! Let's find out what happens to mushrooms in the rain ... and the insects that hide beneath them.
The Mushroom Fan Club by Elise Gravel
This is another one I just found! Yay! I love finding new books to read when researching books to share. Join the author-illustrator on what looks and sounds like a fabulous mushroom hunt in the woods. This book had me at stinkhorns and chanterelles! And look at these illustrations!
Want to know what else is going on Under Your Feet? Check out another book from D.K. Publishing by that name. Looks like our friendly fungus might have a cameo here, too!
I had to come back add this one! I just stumbled on another FUNgus book, and this one has awesome activities! I can't wait to take a closer look at it. Funky Fungi: 30 Activities for Exploring Molds, Mushrooms, Lichens, and More, by Alisha Gabriel and Sue Heavenrich, looks amazing!
There are SO MANY guides to mushrooms and other fungi out there, but if you're interested in a handbook to start distinguishing friend from foe in the Fungi kingdom, maybe try yet another D.K. title: Mushrooms: How to Identify and Gather Wild Mushrooms and Other Fungi. You can also look up the encyclopedia but gorgeously illustrated Fungarium by Ester Gaya and Royal Botanic Gardens. Finally, here's another novel I read recently that draws on facts about fungi to weave some fabulously enthralling fiction: The Power by Naomi Alderman. This one's not for the meek and mild. It relies on the same foundational ideas as Mutant Mushroom Takeover but builds a more terrifying, dystopian story in the young adult to adult reader range. Beware the spores!
Want bonus resources? Check these out: