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The witch's hat mushroom.
Credit: Jardin botanique de Montréal (Jean Després)

The fascinating world of mushrooms

Mushrooms are all around us. We see them on lawns, in fields, on trees and on the forest floor. They are everywhere in nature, yet they are still poorly understood. Nearly 2,000 species have now been classified in Québec, but probably more than a thousand others have yet to be discovered. Some are gastronomer’s delight, others can kill ...

What is a mushroom?

The mushrooms we see sprouting suddenly on the lawn or in the forest are only the visible part of complex organisms. Mushrooms are fructifications, or the fruits, from a vegetative system called mycelium which is composed of tiny filaments. The mycelium lives in various substrata such as humus, rotting wood and the bark of trees.

The fructifications are solely for reproduction. Through their spores, which are comparable to the seeds of plants, mushrooms are able to spred and colonize new habitats. In the typically shaped mushroom, the spores are produced on the underside of the cap. The cap, closed in the juvenile stage, opens and spreads at maturity allowing the spores to be dispersed into the air.

When the spores land in a favorable place, and weather conditions are right, they can germinate and produce a new mycelium.

For a mushroom to fructify, or take fruit, there must first be an encounter between two primary mycelia of the same species but opposite polarity (+ and -). The secondary mycelium resulting from this encounter can develop rapidly and bear fruit when the temperature and humidity levels are favorable. Most species produce fructifications lasting only 2 to 7 days. Once the spores have been dispersed, the specimens decompose very rapidly and can disappear without trace within a week – almost as suddenly as they appeared!