Have you noticed the fascinating array of mushrooms sprouting in backyards, urban parks and natural areas this Autumn and Winter? I don’t know whether we are having a particularly good year for fungi, or if it’s just a case of me becoming more interested in them, but I can’t stop spotting new and beautiful specimens everywhere I look.
They display an enormous diversity of forms, from large bracket fungi that cling to trees and logs, to delicate mushrooms measuring less than a centimetre, large, red-capped and white-spotted toadstools, and even (slightly disturbing-looking) jelly fungi.
Mushrooms are actually the fleshy, fruiting bodies of certain types of fungi. The rest of the fungi may be present in the soil, litter or on wood year round, but the visible mushrooms appear quickly when the conditions are juuuust right. Mushroom growth is triggered by a combination of high humidity, substrate moisture and low light levels, although different groups exhibit different preferences.
Fungi are their very own Kingdom – separate from Plants, Animals, Protists and Bacteria – and include mushrooms, yeasts and moulds. They may appear similar to plants because they share some lifestyle characteristics, but structurally they are actually very different. While the cells of plants are strengthened with cellulose, the structural component of fungal cells is chitin. Interestingly, chitin is also the main component in insect and crustacean exoskeletons, butterfly wing-scales, the toothed tongues or radulae of molluscs and the beaks and internal shells of squid and octopus.
Unlike plants, fungi cannot generate their own food from the sun, and instead grow directly on their food source, which may be soil, leaf litter, rotting wood or a living host. While plants are the producers in an ecosystem, fungi are the decomposers – they are responsible for breaking down all that forest leaf litter.
Lichen, the encrusting stuff that coats trees, rocks and bricks and looks like a cross between moss and coral, is actually a symbiosis between a green alga (or sometimes a cyanobacteria) and a fungus. Because fungi cannot photosynthesize themselves, to draw energy from sunlight, this relationship allows them access to a greater range of nutrients.
Due to the incredible diversity of fungi, even within just those species that produce mushrooms, species identification is a job for the specialists, known as mycologists. This author attempted to classify the species she has photographed here for several days, but found it an almost impossible task. Therefore, many still remain unidentified. If you know mushrooms, or know someone who does, we would love to hear your identification suggestions.
If you would like to check out the fungi in your suburb, park or natural area, the best thing to do is to look for shaded areas that are protected from heavy foot traffic, and take - your - time. Many of the most interesting and attractive species are tiny and easily missed. Show us your fungi photos by using the hashtag #wildmelbourne on Instagram, tweeting us @wildmelbourne or posting them to our Facebook page.
All photos by Cathy Cavallo.