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Fungi - "the mushroom and toadstool things".

Fungi are amazing - they seem to pop up from nowhere overnight, especially after the autumn rains. The colours of some are quite brilliant, while others are plain dull. Some are extremely tiny, while some are the size of dinner plates. Some are here one day and gone the next, others last for weeks, or in the case of the bracket fungi, for years.

The shapes vary considerably also - many of them do not look like a regular mushroom. There are woody brackets, thin fans, coral types, jelly-like blobs, honey-combs, cups, and flat sheets that look like a coat of paint.

 

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The fungi we see are just the reproductive parts - fruiting bodies which contain thousands of tiny spores waiting to be spread far and wide. Most fungi rely on air movement to spread the spores around, but some use a puffing mechanism, some rely on rain droplets, while a few specialise in smelling putrid to attract flies which will then unknowingly spread the spores.

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Apart from their visible fruiting bodies, fungi are made up of thin thread-like structures called hyphae which spread through the soil or rotting wood, obtaining their food by digesting and absorbing the organic matter. This part of the fungi life style is usually unseen by us. Fungi don't have chlorophyll to make their own food, so they are dependent on getting ready-made food. In that way, fungi work as decomposers, breaking down dead material and recycling minerals.

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Some types of fungi invade living trees and eventually kill them, while others form an important mycorrhizal relationship with their host plant, benefiting both. The fungal mycelium (a mass of hyphae) form a tissue with the host's roots known as a mycorrhiza. The fungus gets its food from the host, which in turn benefits by getting more minerals because of the fungal activity in the soil. These mycorrhizal connections can noticeably improve the growth of trees.

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One question many people ask when they find a fungus is "Can you eat it?" I think most New Zealanders have been brought up to regard anything other than the white field mushroom as poisonous. Not much is known about the edibility of our native mushrooms and toadstools. However there are some edible fungi, many of which were accidentally introduced when the early settlers brought in plants with soil attached. Unless you are absolutely certain about a fungus, the rule is: DONT EAT IT!

For books on fungi, click here