vegetable of the week: what is a mushroom??

I eat a lot of mushrooms. After a while I asked myself what it was that I was eating. It turns out to be quite cool and weird!

Mushrooms, as I am sure pretty much everybody knows, are fungi (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fungus). The Fungi comprise their own kingdom (like how we all had books on the animal kingdom etc when we were young) that includes the molds (moulds in the rest of the world), yeasts and mushrooms. That seems like a wildly disparate group of organisms to me, but apparently they are as similar as corals are to humans, which makes sense. As you can imagine, mushrooms come from everywhere!

Where this all starts to get weird is when you consider their relationship to animals. When I studied botany at college, we inherited the fungi. However, that seems to have been more of an artifact of the inherent elitism of zoologists rather than a reflection of reality, as it turns out that fungus are more closely related to animals than to plants! Check the image below:

The Fungi and Animals are neighbors at the right hand side, having split from a common lineage. It is important to note that the spectrum from Firmicutes to Animalia does not reflect anything in superiority, or inherent ‘development’, except in out heads! Notice that we could swap the place of the eukaryotes and archaea, but we don’t ever seem to do that, as we are all still steeped in the idea of ‘higher’ animals and plants and ‘lower’ bacteria and archaea. Also note how the stuff we know and usually consider in our daily lives, the plants and animals, make up a tiny portion of the vast sweeping diversity of life!! In actually reality, bacteria and archaea are the most abundant, dominant forms of life; ‘higher’ organisms are outliers, not the norm!! But I digress!

Mushrooms are detritivores, meaning that they break down and live off dead, dying and decaying organic matter/organisms (detritus). They actually play a really big role in the whole decay process, and are incredibly important in the functioning of ecosystems. If nothing was ever broken down, and resources recycled, then everything would come to a screeching halt pretty soon!

However, being detritivores, mushrooms are more akin to cows than to grass. Most of a vegan’s diet is comprised of primary producers, who make their living off sunlight. However, fungi consume these primary producers, which kind of explains how they are so high in protein, just like cows and other herbivores.

When discussing fungi, the terminology gets really extravagantly inaccessible. It is almost a conspiracy. So let’s not engage in it! But the central story of mushrooms goes like this:

Mushrooms are usually just fuzzy filamentous strings living in the soil and on decaying stuff. They can make really, really massive colonies. I heard somewhere that there are continuous colonies stretching from Italy to Spain, but that might have been about ant colonies. When they get freaked out, these filaments make these huge fruiting structures that we can eat!! So our best friend is a slightly worried fungus filament. Things that weight on a filament’s mind are changes in temperature, moisture, and nutrient availability. So we cultivate mushrooms by worrying the fungal filaments, are reaping the sweet rewards in mushrooms!!

As we all know, mushrooms rule when it comes to delivering the high quality protein (eg http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/vegetables-and-vegetable-products/2486/2). They also are rich in sweet, sweet, energizing B vitamins, and minerals like copper and selenium. I love B vitamins!! They make my nerves sing, my brain function, and me bounce, bounce, bounce!! As non-primary producers, as outlined above, or just as weirdos with bacterial friends, mushrooms may be sources of vitamin B12, the holy grail of the non-carnivore. According to the Beef lobby or whoever, you can only get B12 from eating animals. However, recently, B12 was found in mushrooms (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19552428). But for some reason this study has been controversially received, so I guess we will have to wait and see if it is legit.

Speaking of legit, I skip over the role of psychedelic mushrooms here, as delightful as they are. For that, I suggest you read up on the work of the glorious ethnobotanic anarchist Terence McKenna (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terence_McKenna), with his hypothesis that these mushrooms can account for the incredibly rapid evolution of humanity (especially our brains) outlined in The Food of the Gods. But I will leave you with this image:

Enjoy!

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~ by maoctopus on January 16, 2011.

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