Mushroom Anatomy 101: From Cap to Mycelium

Mushroom Anatomy 101: From Cap to Mycelium

The mushroom world can be one of mystery. 

The Fungal Kingdom does much of its work unseen, with fruiting bodies – or mushrooms – springing rapidly to life from what would seem like the thin air. But there is a method behind their magic, and a complex system of natural processes that brings them into being. 

The secrets to the origins of fungi lie in their familiar but curious structures. From spore to cap to mycelium, let’s get better acquainted with the anatomy of mushrooms, and their key parts for wellness benefits. 

What is Mycology?

Are mushrooms plants? The short answer is no. While their stem-and-cap form may be plantlike, and often grow in concert with trees and other plant matter, unlike their botanical counterparts, they aren’t capable of photosynthesis (turning sunlight into energy). 

And while this makes them biologically more similar to humans than vegetables (crazy, right?), they don’t fit the animal bill, either. 

Mushrooms belong to a class of their own: fungi, the study of which is known as mycology. While all mushrooms are fungi, not all fungi are mushrooms; in addition to mushrooms, mycology also examines yeasts. 

From the Ground Up 

So, how do mushrooms grow? Lifecycles in the  mycology universe begin both above and below ground. From germination to maturity, this lifecycle for many species spans about three weeks, while others can take several months. Mushrooms double in size every 24 hours on their journey to becoming fully formed, and when mature are composed of a whopping 90% water. 

Mushrooms begin as Spores. 

While invisible to the naked eye, seed-like mushroom spores – the microscopic cells that drive their reproduction – are abundant in our atmosphere, traveling via air currents and water sources like rain. Studies out of Harvard, Berkeley, and Cornell have recently discovered that some species of mushrooms can even create their own wind currents on which to carry spores, allowing them to cover more ground and more efficiently reproduce. 

Next, they develop a Mycelium Network underground.

Spores move about our environments undetected, landing in moist, dark places, where they germinate and begin to produce an underground network of root-like threads called hyphae. Entangled hyphae filaments gather to form fungal mycelium, the subterranean webs through which mushrooms draw their nutrients. Mycelia can range in size from too minute to see to spanning thousands of acres, and are critical to the health and survival of every natural ecosystem on our planet. One mushroom in particular, an Armillaria solidipes, is considered to be the largest organism on earth, with its underground network spanning 2.4 miles across the Blue Mountains of Oregon beneath the Malhuer National Forest’s floor. 

Mushrooms do a great deal of their work in the dark. And while they do not photosynthesize or require any light to grow, some are capable of making their own, with a reaction between enzymes and chemical compounds causing them to emit a green bioluminescent light. Remarkably in some species, this light is emitted as a glow from both the mycelia below ground, and the mushroom’s fruiting body above ground.  

And finally, the mushroom’s Fruiting Body forms.

When conditions are right, the familiar structure of a mushroom’s fruiting body starts to take shape. From the mycelium, a cup- or sac-like volva membrane begins to form, which then rapidly produces a mushroom’s stipe (or stem). In some mushrooms, like the king’s oyster, the stem can be the most flavorful part of a fungus, as well as the highest in dietary fiber. In others, like the portobello, stems are removed before cooking for their tough and woody texture. 

In certain species, like the amanita mushroom, a ring or annulus will appear along the stem, a remnant of the partial veil – a temporary protective structure that shields the mushroom’s spore-producing surface as it develops.  

These spore-producing surfaces can take the shape of gills, as with the chaga mushroom or the often enjoyed crimini; pores, like the reishi mushroom; or teeth, like the lion’s mane mushroom. Gills and pores commonly line the underside of a mushroom’s pileus, or cap, which appears atop the stem, while the fruiting body of the lion’s mane, which has no stem, is made up entirely of its long, shaggy white teeth.

Caps can vary in appearance, shape, and size, with the banded turkey tail ranging from one to four inches, and the lustrous red reishi spanning as wide as fourteen. Cordyceps are known for their cylindrical caps, while shiitake are recognizably convex. Mushroom caps also display patterns of unique texture, which can be smooth, scaly, striated, warted, or even slimy, and can come in handy when identifying otherwise similar fungal species in the wild.  

While the lifespans of most shrooms are fleeting, with both fruiting bodies and spores lasting only a matter of a few days, some can live for much longer. Turkey tail, for instance, may linger for several years. But the majority of mushrooms are especially ephemeral, making the most of their limited time with the work of spreading their spores, which may then find their place in the order of things and begin anew with hyphae and mycelia of their own.  

Important Parts of Mushrooms for Wellness

When it comes to the compounds of fungi tied to specific health and wellness benefits, which parts of a mushroom’s anatomy do they come from? Well, in short: all of them. 

Through our diets, mushrooms can deliver essential nutrients like potassium (more than a banana), are one of the best natural sources of niacin, and boast the highest levels of vitamin D in the produce aisle. While mycelia play a crucial role in the formation of nutrient dense mushrooms, we wouldn’t necessarily find them on our plates in our favorite restaurants. 

But when it comes to medicinal mushrooms, though higher concentrations of important compounds are sometimes found in the fruiting bodies they produce, utilizing a fungal structure in its entirety delivers benefits that could be lost when divided. Taking a full-spectrum approach– using both the caps and stems of the “flowering” fungi we see above ground and the tangled mycelium webs they weave below– is the best path to experiencing the full potential of their extraordinary bioactives. 

Beneficial compounds like beta-glucans, terpenes, lectins, and polyphenols, highly present in functional and nootropic mushrooms like brain boosting lion’s mane, adaptogenic reishi, and antioxidant-rich chaga, can all be best experienced when the entire fungus is harvested for use.         

With the vast networks of fungal life always underfoot and its microscopic beginnings in constant invisible motion around us, it’s incredible what the small and often fleeting anatomical structures of mushrooms make possible for our world and our well being.

Whatever your wellness goals, the full spectrum possibilities of functional fungi have you covered. Here’s to a healthier world, one spore, mycelia, stem, and cap at a time. 

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