Overview of Higher Fungi
An Introduction and Overview to the Higher Fungi
Most people recognize that at its simplest level, all living things may be divided into two distinct kingdoms: Plant and Animal. These same people, almost without exception, have a mental picture of all plants as being green. They are often surprised to learn that the plant kingdom may itself be divided into five basic groups and that one group does not contain the chlorophyll that gives the plant its characteristic ‘green’ color. All will recognize the first group, the seed producers (the leafy plants). Many will also recognize the ferns and their allies as a second group and the mosses, liverworts and lichens as a third. Some will even identify the algae (the pond scum that forms on still pools of water or the green coating that forms on the bases of trees in moist, shaded areas) as a fourth grouping. After all, algae have the characteristic ‘green’ color of plants. But, the fifth group, the Fungi, is often passed over as some type of anomaly or incongruity that is neither animal nor truly plant.
This group, the fungi, will be our focus of study. It is worth noting here that while many botanists and mycologists still treat Fungi as a sub-kingdom under Plantae (the Plant), a growing number have elected to raise Fungi to kingdom status. At first glance, this change in the system of classification would seem a bold and brash departure from all that is stable and concrete (and considered by some to be almost sacred), but this is not the first great change to occur in the classification of things. All systems of classification are nothing more than mans attempt to organize his knowledge. Hochreutiner probably said it best, “in nature there are no families, no genera, no species; there are only individuals more or less resembling one another.” Though this change to kingdom status is of recent origin, for our purposes we will recognize the kingdom Fungi. Taxonomy (classification) is not the most interesting of subjects, but, it is important, at this point, to present a brief overview of its various levels in order for us to have a clear understanding of the intimate relationship that exists between those few individual species we will as ‘mushroomers’, eventually encounter.
The kingdom Fungi is divided into two divisions: Eumycota (the true fungi) and Myxomycota (the slime molds). Of these two divisions, only Eumycota contains much that is of interest to the average ‘mushroomer’. The division Eumycota is again divided into nine sub-divisions. Of these nine subdivisions, only two, Ascomycotina and Basidiomycotina are of importance to us. These two sub-divisions with their respective classes, orders, families, genre and species, represent what is often called the higher fungi or fleshy fungi and contain nearly every mushroom that you or I will ever stumble upon . This is an extreme simplification of a much more complex classification system, but is adequate for our purposes.
The classification of fungi, like that of plants is primarily based upon the characteristics of the reproductive stage of growth. Although both the vegetative and reproductive stages are simple in comparison to those of plants, they do differ greatly in the type of reproductive bodies they produce and the structures that bear these bodies. Ascomycotina bear their spores in a saclike cell called an ascus and the spores are typically forcibly ejected upon maturity. In contrast, Basidiomycotina bear their spores on the surface of a reproductive cell called a basidia. The spores are attached by fine projections called sterigma. At maturity the spores separate from the sterigma and fall to the ground. This is a very elementary explanation but is sufficient to clarify the difference between the two groups.
Below is a simplified description of the major sub-groups of the fleshy fungi. As you can see, the ‘higher fungi’ are a tremendously diverse and interesting lot. Our most common fleshy fungi, including the gilled mushrooms, boletes, puffballs and polypores are Basidiomycotinas. The morels, truffles and cup fungi are Ascomycotinas.
Gilled Mushrooms - Agaricales
Tubed Mushrooms - Boletaceae
Boletes are fleshy mushrooms with tubes rather than the gills of the agarics. The tube layer is easily separable from the cap. The stem is typically centrally attached. Most boletes are terrestrial though occasionally they may be found on rotting wood.
Chanterelles and Their Relatives - Cantharellaceae
Chanterelles have fleshy fruiting bodies that are vase or trumpet shaped. The underside (fertile spore-bearing surface) is typically veined or ridged, though there are a few species which are smooth. Chanterelles are terrestrial but may be found on well-rotted wood.
Club and Coral Fungi - Clavariaceae
The fruiting bodies are fleshy and simple to multi-branched. If the mushroom is multi-branched it is typically so from a common base. Spores are produced on the branch surfaces. These mushrooms are usually terrestrial though they are occasionally found on well-rotted wood.
Toothed Fungi - Hydnaceae
The fruiting bodies are variously shaped; all with a fertile, lower surface composed of tooth-like projections. If mushroom-shaped, then the fruiting body is terrestrial. Those which possess a loosely branched or cushion-like structure are found only on wood.
False Truffles - Hymenogastrales
The fruiting bodies are typically round, but may be potato-like or irregularly shaped. They develop under-ground but occasionally appear on the surface. The gleba (fertile spore-bearing tissue) may be gelatinous, spongy or firm. Unlike the puffballs, the gleba is not powdery at maturity and unlike the true truffle it is not marbled or labyrinth-like.
Puffballs and Earthstars - Lycoperdales
The fruiting bodies are spherical to pear-shaped with the outer layer of some splitting into star-like rays. They are occasionally stalked. The gleba (fertile tissue) is formed internally. It is firm and typically white when young. In age it discolors and becomes powdery as the spores mature. Spore dispersion is by a pore, tear or with disintegration of the glebal covering. The may be terrestrial or found on rotting wood.
Bird’s Nest Fungi - Nidulariales
These are small fungi with cylindrical or cup-shaped fruiting bodies. The one to several ‘eggs’ (peridioles) within the cup are often covered by a thin membrane. They may be either terrestrial or found on rotting wood.
Common and Ornate Stinkhorns - Phallales
The fruiting body immerges from an egg which leaves a volva at the base of the stem. The fruiting body may have a stem or may be stalkless. The spore bearing surface of the cap (head) is coated with a foul-smelling slime. Stinkhorns may be in the shape of a phallus or a round lattice-like basket.
Gastroid Agarics - Podaxales
The fruiting bodies have the appearance of an aborted or badly deformed agaric. The stalk is typically short. The spore mass is usually composed of contorted gills, or branching cavities and may not be exposed. No spore print is attainable.
Polypores - Conks, Bracket Fungi and Other Woody Fungi - Polyporaceae
These are woody or leathery conks or brackets with a fleshy, pore covered under surface (fertile layer). The fertile layer may occasionally be gill-like, labyrinth-like, or tooth-like, but cannot be readily separated from the remainder of the fruiting body. The fruiting bodies are typically lignicolous (inhabiting wood), though they occasionally appear terrestrially.
Crust and Parchment Fungi - Stereaceae
The fruiting bodies are crust-like or bracket-like. They typically have a tough or leathery texture. The surface may be smooth in texture, warted or veined but does not possess spines, pores or tubes.
Jelly Fungi - Tremellales
Stalked Puffballs - Tulostomatales
The fruiting body resembles a puffball in appearance but unlike the puffball, it is borne on a well developed stalk. Like that of the puffball, the gleba (spore mass) of the stalked puffball becomes powdery upon maturity. Stalked puffballs typically inhabit deserts or waste places.
Earth Tongues - Helotiales
The fruiting bodies are frequently small. Most possess a stem with a fertile, rounded, club-shaped, arrow-shaped or flattened head. In some species the stalk and cap are not distinct.
Morels, Elfin Saddles and Cup Fungi - Pezizales
Morels typically have a conic, oval or bell-shaped cap with longitudinal ridges interspersed with pits borne on a well developed stalk. Elfin saddles are typically saddle-shaped, cup-shaped, brain-shaped or convoluted fruiting bodies borne on well developed stalks. The cup fungi typically have disc-shaped or cup-shaped fruiting bodies with short or absent stems. They may be drab to brightly colored and grow on wood.
Flask Fungi - Pyrenomycetes
Flask fungi are typically saprophytic (feeding upon dead or decaying matter) or parasitic fungi with the fertile tissue consisting of minute asci-lined flasks embedded in variously shaped fruiting structures. The more common flask fungi include the Hypomyces molds that infect Amanita, Boletus, Russula and Suillus species and the parasitic Cordyceps which grow from an insect host or from buried truffles.
Truffles - Tuberales
Truffles are typically rounded, wrinkled, or irregularly lobed fruiting bodies. They are hypogeous (develop underground but may be partially emergent. The fertile tissue is formed internally and typically has a convoluted, folded or