November 24, 2012 3:01 am

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Have you ever eaten a mushroom? How? On pizza? In salad? Maybe you had mushrooms in an omelet. Maybe you don’t even like mushrooms! Some people don’t. But many people do and eat them in all kinds of ways.
A mushroom is a fungus. Scientists used to think that mushrooms and other fungi (plural of fungus) were plants. Now they know that fungi are very different from plants. Fungi get their food in a different way than plants. They also reproduce differently from plants. Fungi are now considered a completely different form of life.
A mushroom is the visible part of the fungus. Mushrooms are where some fungi make spores. A spore is like a tiny seed that can grow into a whole new fungus.
The main part of the fungus is called the mycelium and it’s hidden. It’s down inside whatever the fungus is growing in.
A plant uses nutrients and sunlight to make food and stay alive. But a fungus can’t do this. It has to take food from its surroundings. It does that by breaking down material into basic nutrients. That’s why wild mushrooms usually sprout from old leaves or damp old logs. The fungus is breaking down the dead material to use as food.
Fungi are called decomposers because they help decompose, or break things down. A rotting log is soft because decomposers have digested the hard parts.
Most mushrooms are shaped somewhat like umbrellas. They have a fleshy or woody stalk. On top of the stalk is a flat or round cap with thin spokes called gills underneath. Not all mushrooms look like that, but that’s the most common shape.
Some mushrooms are different. They’re round like balls and grow underground. Some look like plates and stick out from tree trunks. Others look like regular mushrooms but have spongy holes instead of gills underneath. Fairy ring mushrooms actually grow in a ring on the forest floor. That’s because the underground part of the fungus grows in a big circle and sprouts mushrooms around its edges.
Some mushrooms have become very popular to eat. They don’t have much nutritional value. People eat them just for the taste and unusual textures.
One group of mushrooms, called truffles, grows underground. The odor of truffles is so strong that pigs and dogs can be trained to sniff them out! The truffle is a highly prized food, especially in France where it usually grows.
Another group, called morels, looks like small, shriveled honeycombs on a stick. Morels are a favorite of mushroom hunters in North America.
The portabella mushroom is big and juicy and is considered a kind of mushroom steak. People sometimes eat sliced portabellas like slabs of meat. And the shiitake mushroom has been a favorite delicacy in Asia for centuries.
But some mushrooms are poisonous. They can make you sick and damage your organs. A few are even deadly. The most famous poisonous mushrooms are the amanitas. They cause most of the mushroom poisonings in the United States. Mushroom hunters have to be very careful. They don’t eat any mushroom unless they know it’s safe. Mushrooms can be delicious, but they can be dangerous, too.
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