Mushrooms refer to a large and diverse group of organisms that belong to their own Kingdom, the fungi Kingdom. Mold and yeast are also members of this Kingdom.Mushrooms are sometimes considered as non-flowering plants but are best thought of as nature’s recyclers. Some are poisonous, others tasty and a small select group are medicinal.
Mushrooms come in a large variety of unusual shapes and sizes. Mushrooms have been used since pre-history for their flavor. While there is an estimated 40,000 species of mushrooms only around 700 of them are part of the diet.
The mushroom is the fruiting body or reproductive organ of a fungus. It is the part of the fungus that grows above ground. A fungus survives by absorbing the nutrients from decaying organic matter (trees and plants). Mushrooms convert dead organic matter into humus and then converts humus into life supporting nutrients. Their purpose in life is to release spores (seeds) into the environment to germinate and generate more mushrooms.
The classic mushroom is composed of a cap and a stem. The underside of the cap contains many thin blades that radiate out from the mushroom’s central stem. These blades are called gills and are the spore-releasing surface of the mushroom. A spore is the equivalent of a plant’s seed. Spores allow a mushroom to spread to new areas.
The stem of a mushroom allows the cap to remain above the earth and enables the hundreds of thousands of spores to be lifted into the air by wind. Shiitake mushrooms are an example of this mushroom design.
Some mushrooms do not have gills and stems and are known as polypores because the underside of the cap is composed of a tightly packed layer of pores. Spores are produced on the inside of these pores. Reishi are examples of mushrooms of this type.
The mycelium is a network of fine filaments that originate from the germination of spores.
Mycelia derive their nutrients from the dead organic matter in their environment and recycle it into humus. Out of the humus, the mycelia are able to synthesize their unique library of medicinal compounds and nutrients. The mycelia use the nutrients to produce a new generation of mushrooms, which then send more spores into a favorable environment where they can germinate and generate a new colony.
Mushrooms live on the lowest rung of the ecological ladder. They have an immunological system that protects them and a digestive system that decomposes decaying matter. Collectively this wards off pathogens and deactivates harmful toxins. This process provides the phytonutrients that promote human health.
The universe of phytochemicals synthesized by mushrooms include polysaccharides, sterols, lipids, proteins, and triterpenes.
The unique library of polysaccharides of mushroom confer an ability to inhibit viruses and cancer cells. These polysaccharides are bound to proteins and thus may not be active when separated from its protein component.
Mushrooms are a good source of protein, fiber, B vitamins and calcium. In addition they contain healing compounds that help cope with stress. Avoiding stress increases resistance to disease.
Commercially, mushrooms are grown in large vats that contain a solution of sugars and starches. Mushrooms grow in the wild on the other hand require dark, moist conditions.