Fall Nature Connection #6 – Mushrooms and Spore Prints

Today’s activity provides an opportunity to learn more about mushrooms! After rains, these creations seem to pop up everywhere. Different sizes and shapes, from round and squat to tall and flat. Different colors, from orange to white to gray and brown. You may find beautiful orange mushrooms living on old trees, and small gray-brown puffballs next to an old log.

What is a mushroom?
It is actually the fruiting body of a fungus, known as a fungal flora. Some of them are edible, others are poisonous. Before eating any mushroom you find, be sure you know what kind it is, and then consume it only if it is an edible variety!

Fungi facts: Just as the mushrooms can be good or bad for people, fungi are good or bad for people, too. The yeast used when making bread is actually a fungi. When bread dough ‘rises’ the yeast in the dough is actually making carbon dioxide and alcohol. Baking boils off the alcohol, but the carbon dioxide and alcohol have left holes in the dough that give the final product, bread, its lightness. Fungi are also used in making cheese. Many antibiotics and medicinal compounds are produced from fungi, including penicillin and some headache remedies.Some fungi can attack humans, like ringworm and athletes’ foot. Other types of fungi attack plants, and sometimes devastate food crops like potatoes, or various grains.

The study of mushrooms is known as mycology.

Mushroom anatomy:
A young mushroom is called an egg or button, and looks a lot like a bird or turtle egg.
The outside covering of this button is called the universal veil.
The universal veil pops open, and the stalk of the mushroom begins to grow, like the trunk of a tiny tree.
The cap of the mushroom is like the top of the umbrella; sometimes part of the universal veil is visible on top of the cap.
Just below the cap a small skirt circles the stalk; this is the ring or annulus.
The underside of the cap is where the gills are found; gills spread extend like the spokes of a wheel from the stalk to the bottom edge of the cap.

Gills are distinctive for each mushroom species, and can be used to identify the type of mushroom you have found!


For the purpose of this activity, we will be looking for gilled caps.

Get ready!
You will need:
Several sheets of white typing paper
Clear plastic cups
Plastic sandwich bags
A basket with a handle (an Easter basket works fine)

Get set!
Prepare to look for mushrooms in a moist, shaded area. We’re looking for ‘gilled’ mushrooms. (These are the ones that look like umbreallas. If you turn the cap of the mushroom upside down, the gills underneath resemble a spoked wheel.)

Go!
1. Place your paper and cups where you can easily return to them, preferably on a table or other flat surface. Then search for mushrooms. When you find one, pluck it whole from the soil, including the stem. (NOTE: Place a sandwich bag over the hand of a young child, to use as a plastic glove, especially if the child has a tendency to suck on their fingers. ALWAYS wash hands after handling mushrooms!)

2. Gather several mushrooms in your basket and take them back to the table. Lay out a sheet of paper. Snap off the mushroom stems and place the caps gill-side down. Cover each with a plastic cup, and top the cups with small rocks so they won’t fall over.

3. Gather as many varieties of mushrooms as you can find and repeat step 2. Have lunch, play a game, or explore. (Spore prints take at least an hour.) Then uncover your mushrooms and lift the cap carefully away from the paper.

You will find spore prints on the paper under the mushroom cap, made from the mushrooms spore dust. Spores are the fungi’s ‘seeds.’ When they blow away, wherever they land, if there is food and water for growth, a new fungi will develop, and eventually create new mushrooms.

(Thanks to the book, “Play Lightly on the Earth – Nature Activities…” by Jacqueline Horsfall, for the basics of this activity.)

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