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Fabulous and Fascinating Fungi – discover a hidden kingdom

On Friday 19th July 2013 the Eco-Rangers enjoyed rummaging through the damp forests in search of fungi. The children discovered at least 6 different types of mushroom, including one jelly fungi and lots of mycelium.

A red mushroom (amanita muscaria)

A red mushroom (amanita muscaria)

Later they examined the specimens collected by looking through the microscope and then they drew the finer details on a worksheet.

The life cycle of fungus is fascinating to say the least. Our children study the plant life cycle at school and possibly they study mushrooms and fungi . . . anyhow, the Eco-Ranger children enjoyed every moment of this workshop even if they have in some cases studied this topic before. By the end of the class the children should have been equipped with information such as the anatomy of the mushroom, how to tell the difference between poisonous and edible (of course always double check), what is mycelium and of course many other mushroom / fungi facts.

Here is one of the illustrations done by Griffin.
Look at our face book page for more illustrations. We think there are some really good pieces of work. Let us know what you think?

Illustration by Griffin

Illustration by Griffin

Fungus is a nature subject that kids (and adults) always seem interested in learning about. The main “plant” is the mycelium, which grows under the surface of the soil. The mushrooms we see on the surface are really the “flowers.” They form when the mycelium senses moisture and is at the stage of flowering. The mushrooms, also called “fruiting bodies” appear on the surface where they distribute spores into the air. These spores can start new mycelia.

Apart from being an exciting discovery while out walking, mushrooms have many places in our modern world. The most common use is in cooking. Many of you will have enjoyed mushrooms on your pizza, as a breakfast accompaniment or thrown into a pasta or risotto. And if you enjoy them raw as I do, then you might toss them into your salad. Mushrooms are a very good source of protein – especially if dry or cooked. Oh and they are also a good source of vitamin B. So they are not only delicious, they are healthy too!

Andreas setting up the microscope

Andreas setting up the microscope

Of course, mushrooms also have uses in medicine, especially traditional or holistic types of medicine. Mushrooms can be used for dyeing wool and other natural fibers. Before the invention of synthetic dyes, mushrooms were the source of many textile dyes.

Some fungi have been used as fire starters (known as tinder fungi).

And in art . . . well they’re great subjects to paint. And for children, a fun project is to make a mushroom spore print.
Mushrooms often make their own spore prints out in nature; however, one seldom notices them.

Make your own spore print:
To make a spore print at home, you will need to have one or two mature mushrooms. Try to avoid young mushrooms, button mushrooms and mushrooms with some kind of a covering over their gills or pores. These will not make good prints.

The underside of a mushroom showing the gills

The underside of a mushroom showing the gills

Remove the stem from smaller mushrooms and place the cap, gills or pores downward, on a piece of paper or glass. If you have a large mushroom, you can slice off a section of the cap and use only the section. Place a cup or glass upside-down on top of your mushroom, to keep air currents away. Leave your project in a safe place where it will not be moved. Wait overnight for best results.

In the morning you will discover a beautiful pattern once you have carefully removed the mushroom from the paper. You should find that the spore print reflects the pattern of the mushroom’s gills or pores.

Have fun making your spore prints and bring them to show us when you come to your next meeting

Remember there are some very poisonous mushrooms out there and kids should NEVER touch a wild mushroom if not with a knowledgeable adult. Please, keep this in mind when selecting mushrooms for your spore print exercise.

Some MUSHROOM information:

What is a mushroom?
Mushrooms are not really plants or animals! Some say they are they are closely related to animals. Maybe that is because a mushroom can smell so awful when it decomposes. I guess this could be a result of the high content of protein in a mushroom.

Proudly showing off a completed worksheet

One proud Caracal showing off a completed worksheet

Like most, I always thought a mushroom was more plant than animal. A fungus is classified under the kingdom, Fungi, which is separate from plants, animals, and bacteria. It includes microorganisms such as yeasts and molds. So it is not a plant or an animal, but a kingdom on it’s own.

Now the mushroom part which we always see is really classed as the fruit. This is where the spore are found. The spores are the seeds which are microscopic. You can’t really see them unless there are thousands of them released at one time and they happen to become caught on nearby leaves or other mushrooms. You might then see what looks like a fine dusting of spores. Try to make your own spore print and you will see them.

The actual body of the mushroom is called the mycelium. We seldom notice this as it is underground. Ask around and you will probably find many people have never heard of this fascinating mushroom body. Most of us think a mushroom is literally the part we see on the surface. Little do they know the actual body can spread for kilometres under the ground. Wow!!!!!

Mushrooms and fungi are one in the same. To put it simply, mushrooms are fungi. Fungi really belong in a kingdom of their own as they are so unique and really are unlike any animal or plant. Mushrooms contain no chlorophyll and they obtain their nutrition from breaking down (metabolizing ) non-living organic matter. In other words they live off dead plants which puts them in the class of saprophytes.

The mycelium (mushroom body) will store nutrients and other essential compounds until such a time when there is enough available to fruit. In other words produce mushrooms. Of course the conditions also have to right for the mushrooms to be formed. There needs to be enough moisture around.

Tobias examining a mushroom

Tobias examining a mushroom

The mycelium or living body is made out of a web of tiny filaments called hyphae. The mycelium is usually hidden in the soil, in wood, or another food source. The pine forests are good areas to look out for mycelium. Did you know that a mycelium can be as small as a tiny grain of sand or it can be as vast as a football field? Each branching hyphae can spread for kilometres.

Another interesting fact distancing fungi from plant or animal is that of chitin. Most fungi build their cell walls out of chitin. Chitin is the same material used to create the hard outer shells of insects. Plants do not make chitin.

How do mushrooms grow so quickly?
This is one question I often asked myself as a child. Plants take time to grow, yet overnight a mushroom can appear. The mycelium usually only fruit once per year and until this time they store up lots of reserves necessary to fruit. These reserves are then used to create a mushroom when the conditions are prefect for mushrooming. Unlike plants and animals, Mushroom fruit do not grow by cell division. Cell division is slow and requires lots of energy. The mycelium or mushroom body grows in this way; however, the mushroom or fruit grows through cell enlargement. To put it simply, as soon as the fruit begins to develop, a mushroom has almost the same number of cells that a mature mushroom will have. Instead of cell division, the cells balloon up very quickly with water. This is why mushrooms will appear when there is high humidity in the atmosphere. The mushroom will grow in size as fast as water can be absorbed and pumped into the cells. Of course mushrooms need water; however, too much water will drown them. Like plants and humans, they need to breathe. Too little moisture on the other hand will cause mushrooms to shrivel and die.

For more photos you can take a look at the Helderberg Eco-Rangers facebook page.

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