Potty Gardening Club – Fantastic Fungus
Summer has come to an end and autumn is now with us as plants die back and trees slowly go to sleep ready for the winter. This is the time of year when another lifeform is popping up in gardens and woods and lots of other places. They are neither Plant nor Animal. They are rarely noticed but are essential to our survival, as well as wildlife and the countryside. Fungi are a fantastic life form, they are everywhere; in the soil, the air, in, on and within plants and animals, in food and in the human body. They are present in rivers lakes and the sea . Together with bacteria, fungi are responsible for breaking down organic matter and releasing carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and phosphorus into the soil and the atmosphere.
As soon as something dies fungi gets to work breaking it down; rotting it, digesting it and recycling it back into the soil. There are about 14,500 species in the UK. Have a look at the photos of some I have found in my garden and out and about. You may be able to find some in your own garden but REMEMBER SOME MAY BE POISONOUS! so please don’t handle them. Mushrooms and toadstools you see growing in your garden or in the woods are only a very small part of a much larger organism. The main body is hidden beneath the ground and may spread throughout the woods or your garden for many kilometres in area just below the ground, with a cotton thin web (filaments) which digests and rots organic matter, absorbing it into the body of the surface growing fungi.
When fungi reproduce, a sometimes brightly coloured and sometimes stinky fruit-containing spore breaks through the ground. These are the mushrooms we see and the spores are the fungi’s version of seeds. Insects, worms, slugs, snails and animals love fungi and feed on it during the autumn. Squirrels and mice gather it to help stock the larder before winter comes. For us Humans fungus is important; Edible mushrooms, morels and truffles make a delicious meal and fungus (yeast) is used in making bread, some cheeses, wine and beer. One form of fungi is a green mold, Penicillium notatum, that attacks fruits. Perhaps you have seen this yourself at home when fruit has been left to long. Well, Alexander Fleming in 1928 noticed it. That same green mold he was growing in a culture dish had a clear ring around it where no bacteria grew. This was the beginning of the development of Penicillin, the antibiotic drug that fights Staphylococcus.
Fungus has been around for nearly one billion years and have been found in some of the oldest plant fossils examined. Did you know that a giant prehistoric fossil has shown to be the remains of a tree-like fungus that could have grown up to 6 meters tall? Imagine, long before trees appeared on land earth could have been covered by giant mushrooms. Now thats some Fantastic fungus!
Written by Rob Gagliano, Casual Learning Development Leader and Natural Science Collections Volunteer