Welcome to You Ask Andy

Arlene Gonzales, age 12, of Visalia, Calif., for her question:

How do mushrooms grow?

Some of Andy's readers have grown mushrooms from prepared kits  but Andy was unlucky. He bought a mushroom growing kit, read all the directions and followed the instructions with great care  but months later, no mushroom, not even a root had sprouted.

The growing of mushrooms is a tricky business and even very talented gardeners often fail to get results. We can, however, observe the methods used by nature to produce mushrooms in the wild. The plant itself is strange and secretive. It is b uried out of sight in the soil. It contains no greenery, not a speck of the green chlorophyll that most plants use to manufacture their basic food from air, water and light.

The mushroom is a fungus plant of pastey white. It is made entirely of matted threads ca11ed mycelium, and the plant grows by absorbing liquid nourishment from the ground. Unlike the green plants, it must absorb its basic sugars and other essential foods. As a rule, it depends upon foods already prefabricated by other plants.

Such chemicals abound near rotting roots and old tree stumps. These foods, prepared by once living green plants, tend to break up and dissolve. The mushroom must grow in moist soil that is rich in decaying plant material. It often thrives in the soil above an old, rotting tree stump. It may be hidden below a grassy lawn, while year by year the round mat of mycelium grows wider and wider.

Once in a while, the mushroom plant undertakes the task of handing on life to a new generation. The mycelium sprouts up buds above the ground that open up into chubby umbrellas. We call them mushrooms, but actually they are fruits of the hidden mushroom plant. The spores or seedlets are hidden under the umbrella. There they develop among fragile fringes of plant ti89ue ca11ed gills.

Two billion tiny spores may develop in the shade under a single umbrella. When ready, the powdery seedlets burst free and launch themselves on the breeze. Most of them will be blown around and lost forever. Perhaps one lucky spore in a trillion will settle on moist, shady soil that has enough decaying plant material to support a mushroom fungus. It absorbs the rich, liquid nourishment and soon sprouts a few threads of mycelium. In time the buried mesh of pasty threads sprout fruits and another crop of edible mushrooms pokes above the ground.

As a rule, the fruits sprout from the edges of the round rug of mycelium. After a summer rain, a fairy ring of mushroom umbrellas pops up on the lawn or in a field. Fairy rings most often occur when the mycelium draws its food from the long buried remains of a round old tree stump. Once established, the mushroom plant may 11ve and grow for centuries. And through the years, its rings of fairy umbrellas grow bigger and wider.


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