Mushrooms are a type of fungi; Fungi are living organisms that are distantly related to plants, and more closely related to animals, but rather different from either of those groups.
All mushrooms are fungi, but not all fungi are mushrooms.
A mushroom is the reproductive structure produced by some fungi. It is somewhat like the fruit of a plant, except that the “seeds” it produces are in fact millions of microscopic spores that form in the gills or pores underneath the mushroom’s cap.
Many mushroom species are important decomposers, metabolizing non living organic matter. This means they break down and “eat” dead plants. However, many species have a special, symbiotic, “mycorrhizal” relationship with particular species of plants. Often, neither the mushroom nor the plant will grow without a mycorrhizal partner.
No one knows how many types of mushrooms exist in nature. There are about 10,000 described species known from North America, but everyone agrees that there are undiscovered species. Depending on who you believe, the known species are a third to a fifth of what’s really out there.
Roughly speaking, mushrooms are: 50% inedible but harmless, 25% edible, but not incredible, 20% will make you sick, 4% will be tasty to excellent, 1% can kill you.
Popularly, the term mushroom is used to identify the edible sporophores; the term toadstool is often reserved for inedible or poisonous sporophores. There is, however, no scientific distinction between the two names, and either can be properly applied to any fleshy fungus fruiting structure.
Mushrooms grow throughout the year but are most plentiful in autumn. While cultivated mushrooms may be available anytime, most wild mushrooms only appear in autumn.
Many species of mushrooms seemingly appear overnight, growing or expanding rapidly. This phenomenon is the source of several common expressions in the English language including “to mushroom” or “mushrooming” (expanding rapidly in size or scope) and “to pop up like a mushroom” (to appear unexpectedly and quickly). In reality all species of mushrooms take several days to form primordial mushroom fruit bodies, though they do expand rapidly by the absorption of fluids.
Edible mushroom species have been found in association with 13,000-year-old archaeological sites in Chile. Ötzi, the mummy of a man who lived between 3400 and 3100 BC in Europe, was found with two types of mushroom.
Edible mushrooms are consumed for their nutritional value and they are occasionally consumed for their supposed medicinal value. Mushrooms consumed by those practicing folk medicine are known as medicinal mushrooms.
In a 100 gram (3.5 ounce) amount, raw mushrooms provide 22 calories.
Mushrooms are the only vegetarian food that can make vitamin D. Actually, they contain a “pro-vitamin,” or precursor, called ergosterol that is converted into vitamin D when exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation—similar to how your skin synthesizes the vitamin in response to sun exposure.
Mushrooms are also great sources of protein, fiber, B vitamins (especially niacin), vitamin C, calcium, minerals, and selenium. They also contain antioxidants that are unique to mushrooms, such as ergothioneine, which according to studies is a highly powerful antioxidant.
The health benefits of mushrooms include relief from high cholesterol levels, breast cancer, prostate cancer, and diabetes. They also help in weight loss and increase the strength of your immune system.
Cultures around the world have eaten or used mushrooms medicinally for centuries, dating all the way back to ancient Egypt. Legend has it that pharaohs liked their earthy flavor so much, they declared the fungi royalty food and forbid commoners from touching them. Those greedy pharaohs kept the entire supply for themselves.
Ancient Romans and Greeks, particularly the upper classes, used mushrooms for culinary purposes. Food tasters were employed by Roman emperors to ensure that mushrooms were safe to eat.
The rare European white truffle is the world’s most expensive mushroom, with a price tag that can exceed 2,200 euros per 0.45 kilograms (1 pound). Found in Italy’s Piedmont, Marche and Tuscany regions, growing among the roots of poplar, beech, hazelnut, oak and willow trees, white truffles are very aromatic, with a strong flavour that has been described as earthy, musky or garlicky. Light brown or yellowish in color and smooth in texture, they are usually shaved raw over a dish.
More than 75 species of bioluminescent mushrooms exist on Earth, and though some may be drab during the daytime, all are mesmerizing at night.
A fairy ring is a naturally occurring ring or arc of mushrooms. The rings may grow to over 10 meters (33 ft) in diameter, and they become stable over time as the fungus grows and seeks food underground.
Mushrooms with psychoactive properties have long played a role in various native medicine traditions in cultures all around the world. They have a history of use among the native peoples of Mesoamerica for religious communion, divination, and healing, from pre-Columbian times to the present day.
The chicken of the woods is a very tasteful mushroom found all over the world. It’s called the “chicken of the woods” because of its remarkable resemblance to chicken meat when cooked properly.
Fly Agaric mushrooms, which look like Super Mario Bros. mushrooms, contain a psychoactive chemical that can cause micropsia/macropsia, aka the illusion that objects around you are larger or smaller than they actually are.