Mushrooms belong to the plant kingdom, but they aren’t what most people think of as plants. They contain no chlorophyll so they can’t produce their own food like common garden plants can. Mushrooms usually grow in a way that is similar to how plants grow and yet totally different.
Life cycle beginning
The mushroom starts out as a spore. In some ways, a spore is sort of like a seed, though it is also quite different and normally much smaller than even the smallest seeds. However, it is useful to think of it as a seed, since people tend to be more acquainted with the growth of plants.
In order for the spore to germinate, the conditions need to be just right. The soil and air temperature, amount of moisture, amount of sunlight and shade and the available nutrients are all important for whether or not the spore will germinate and grow. Some mushrooms are pickier than others, but all of them need the right conditions for growth. It is because they are so picky that a fruiting body of a mushroom can produce many thousands of spores, but only a few dozen are likely to grow in nature.
When the spore germinates, it begins to produce microscopic branching structures called hyphae. The hyphae in turn produce tiny hair-like structures called mycelium. Mycelium are exceptionally fine and there can be hundreds or thousands of them in a small area; twisting, turning and intertwining just under the surface of the soil. Though people usually don’t think of it this way, the mycelium is actually the mushroom and most of the life of the mushroom is defined by their action and growth, under the surface of the ground. The mycelium can also be spread out over a large area. A chanterelle mushroom (Cantharellus cibarius) fruiting body can be a little smaller than a human fist, yet have mycelium that covers several square feet or more.
Mycelium are responsible for both absorbing the moisture and nutrients that are needed to survive, and for initiating the production of the fruiting body. It is the fruiting body that most people think of as mushrooms, though these are only produced toward the end of the mushroom’s life cycle.
A compatible match
Unlike flowers, vegetables, fruits and herbs, mushrooms aren’t pollinated and don’t even produce pollen. Pollen is the male cell that fertilizes the female ovum of plants to produce the seeds for the next generation of the plants. Since mushrooms have no pollen, another way must be found for fertilization.
This happens when the mycelium comes into contact with another compatible mycelium. Both must be at the right stage of development and the conditions must again be right. If so, the two combine and a fruiting body is produced. If the situation isn’t right, though, the mycelium will eventually die, having never produced what we think of as a mushroom.
The fruiting mushroom
If the fruiting body is produced, it usually grows up through the surface, though not always. As it matures, thousands of tiny spores ripen, the result of the union between the mycelium. Once the spores are ripe enough, they are released to begin the life cycle once again.
The whole sequence is a great deal more complex than this, however this is how mushrooms grow. The amount of time it takes for a mushroom to grow from a spore to a fruiting body depends upon the kind of mushroom and the growing conditions. As mentioned, some types of mushrooms are far pickier than others.
For example, Shaggy Mane mushrooms (Coprinus comatus) take as little as two weeks to grow from a spore to a fruiting mushroom and it grows so easily that it can even be grown in a laboratory without difficulty. However, a morel (Morchella genus) can take over three years to produce a fruiting body, even under good conditions. It should be mentioned that a morel isn’t actually a mushroom, though it is a fungus. However, that is a topic for a different article.
Mushrooms grow in much the same way plants do, but there are some noticeable differences. One of the biggest has to do with the fact that mushrooms don’t produce their own food and don’t have pollen for fertilization. Mushrooms and other fungi (plural for fungus) are simpler than green plants, but their life cycle is no less amazing.