Sunday, December 7, 2014

In search of mushrooms

This is the best time of the year to visit the countryside in search of fungi. Armed with a simple camera one should be able to find a good number of species especially in wooded areas such as Buskett Gardens and Wied il-Luq.

Mid-autumn is a good time to find mushrooms because the soil is wet and the air is still relatively warm.           
About 100,000 fungi have been identified although it is estimated that there can be up to five million species most of which are still to be identified.

About three hundred species of fungi can be found in the Maltese islands. They grow on a wide range of substrates both in the countryside and on man-made objects.

Most people assume that fungi are members of the plant kingdom. Fungi are sessile, they have what look like roots and reproduce by means of spores. In fact this was the belief until in the late sixties it was discovered that fungi are closer to animals than to plants which led to them being assigned a kingdom of their own.

The cell wall of fungi is composed of chitin. Chitin is the main component of the external skeleton of arthropods such as insects and lobsters and is also found in some mollusc structures. Plants do not produce chitin.

Fungi consist of an array of tiny filaments that look like plant roots, known as hyphae. The hyphae are hidden in soil, wood or other organic material on which the fungus can feed.
The hyphae produce acids and enzymes which digest the food outside the cells. The organic material is broken down into simpler compounds which are then absorbed into the cells.

Fungi can live on a very wide range of living or dead organic material. Fungi play an important role in the recycling of nutrients breaking down dead plants and animals into compounds that can be absorbed and utilised by plants. On the other hand fungi that feed on living plants and animals often cause disease or death.

The mushrooms with which we are familiar are nothing but a fruiting body whose function is solely to produce spores and to release them in air so that they drift as far as possible from the parent fungus. 

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 26 November 2014. 

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