Learning Guide

NATURE’S RECYCLERS: FUNGI

Chlorophyllum rachodes

The many fungi in the Park are mostly beneath the soil and out of sight until they push up fruiting bodies in the form of a mushroom or toadstool. They do this when conditions are suitable, most frequently after warm rain. The fruits are tiny spores which may be moved about by wind, rain, and passing feet amongst other mechanisms.

Beneath the surface is the main part of the fungus, a system of roots called a mycelium which you may see as a beautiful fine white ‘tree’ if you turn over a wet piece of wood. Most trees have an intimate relationship with one or more species of fungus at the level of the finest roots. There is a busy and variable exchange going on – the tree transfers energy produced by photosynthesis and the fungus provides soil chemicals to the tree. This process is obviously tricky to study but is slowly becoming better understood.

Fungus is also a decomposer, crucial in the process of breaking down dead organic matter, recycling that waste into nutrients for the plants and soil. They are the recyclers of the natural world. Without them, most dead organic matter wouldn’t decompose (break down), and instead would just build up around us. (Source: Mike Lusk)

Here are a few of the fungi you may see while walking in Te Mata Park (captured in Te Mata Park by Mike Lusk). When observing fungi in the Park, please use only your eyes and do not eat or touch them. 

NATURE’S RECYCLERS

FUNGI

Watch these videos and learn about what fungi is and what it does.

What are fungi? Plants? Animals? Both? Neither? 

How does fungi recycle

What would happen if fungi wasn’t around to decompose organic matter? 


Mycelium – the filaments of fungi that develop into fruiting bodies such as mushrooms, puffballs, toadstools, and truffles. At a certain stage it produces spores, directly or through special fruiting bodies.

Mycelium


Mycology – Mycology is the study of fungi, a group that includes mushrooms and yeasts.

Learn more about fungi…

What are fungi?

Fungi are not plants or animals. They form a separate kingdom that includes mushrooms, toadstools, puffballs, yeast, bread mould and skin infections. They are mainly made of chitin, which also forms the shells of insects.

Many species

Worldwide there are about 1.5 million species (compared to 250,000–420,000 plant species). New Zealand has about 7,500 known species. But many groups have not been well studied, and it could have up to 22,000 species. Some, like the pukatea bracket fungus, are endangered.

Where do they live?

Fungi exist in most places – open fields, forests, gardens, fresh water and the ocean. Many live underground, and some live on dead wood. Other types grow on food or in animals, including humans.

How do they live?

Unlike plants, fungi cannot make their own food through photosynthesis, so they get it by digesting what surrounds them, such as plant roots, leaves, wood or soil nutrients. They form a cobwebby mat (the mycelium), which is made of many fine threads (hyphae). These spread through the soil or wood, for example, seeking food. Some extend far and wide, while others are tiny.

Most plants have fungi growing on their roots. The plant makes food that the fungus gets from the roots, while the fungal threads help the plant roots take up water and nutrients.

Reproduction

Many fungi produce the familiar mushrooms and puffballs. These are called fruiting bodies, and are the way fungi reproduce. Some are shaped like umbrellas, others like cups or coral. Some look like a bird’s nest filled with eggs. They make thousands of tiny spores that are spread by wind, raindrops or animals. When a spore lands, it may grow to form a new colony of the fungus.

Useful and harmful fungi

Many fungi are important because they break down leaves and other dead material, which other organisms can then use. Māori used the pukurau puffball as a painkiller, and for burns. They used another species as a fire-lighter. You can eat some mushrooms – but others can kill you.

Some fungi cause disease by growing in plants (such as brown rot in peaches), in animals (facial eczema) and in people (nail infections). New Zealand’s pūtawa fungus causes decay in silver beech trees. Harore, the bootlace mushroom, can infect kiwifruit and pine trees.

(Source: Peter Buchanan, Te Ara Encyclopaedia)

How do fungi function?

Fungi are recyclers, breaking down material from plants and animals to enable the nutrients to be returned into the ecosystem. 

It may seem that fungi play a specialised and limited role in the scheme of things. In fact, however, fungi are vital to world ecology. Many act as decomposers, breaking down the dead bodies of plants and animals and recycling the nutrients they hold. When a fungus grows on a dead organism, the chemicals released by the hyphae, which break down the tissue, also leak nitrogen, phosphorous, and other nutrients into the soil, as well as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The fungal decay makes these nutrients and carbon dioxide available to green plants for photosynthesis, and it completes an important cycle of raw materials in the ecosystem.

To see a mushroom or mold, it’s easy to think of them as just another lowly creature scratching out survival. But really the fungi have been an important part of the living world for billions of years, and their presence has had much to do with the way the world has evolved. (Britannica)

Types of Fungi

The kingdom Fungi is vast with hundreds of thousands of known species of organisms, including yeastsrustssmutsmildewsmolds, and mushrooms. There are also many fungus like organisms, including slime molds and oomycetes (water molds), that do not belong to kingdom Fungi but are often called fungi. Fungi are among the most widely distributed organisms on Earth and are of great environmental and medical importance. Many fungi are free-living in soil or water; others form parasitic or

symbiotic relationships with plants or animals.

While mushrooms and toadstools (poisonous mushrooms) are by no means the most numerous or economically significant fungi, they are the most easily recognised. Mushrooms are the fruiting body of a complex fungal network beneath the soil.

Fungi are everywhere in very large numbers—in the soil and the air, in lakes, rivers, and seas, on and within plants and animals, in food and clothing, and in the human body. Together with bacteria, fungi are responsible for breaking down organic matter and releasing carbonoxygennitrogen, and phosphorus into the soil and the atmosphere. Fungi are essential to many household and industrial processes, notably the making of bread, wine, beer, and certain cheeses. Fungi are also used as food; for example, some mushrooms, morels, and truffles are epicurean delicacies, and mycoproteins (fungal proteins), derived from the mycelia of certain species of fungi, are used to make foods that are high in protein.

(Britannica)

Mushroom Medicine

Both edible and inedible fungi have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. For example, Ancient Greek philosopher Hippocrates, the founder of modern medicine, used Fomes fomentarius, a woody species found on trees, to cauterize wounds, and Calvatia gigantea, or giant puffball, was used by Native Americans to stem bleeding. (WeForum)

The list of health benefits medicinal mushrooms provide is lengthy (think brain booster, hormone helper, antioxidant powerhouse). But each mushroom is unique and provides its own distinct health advantages. Reishi, lion’s mane, chaga, shitaake, turkey tail and cordyceps are types of mushrooms used for various health benefits including energy, weight loss, sleep, concentration, inflammation and immune support.

Note that these shrooms aren’t a cure-all. In fact, shroom studies are still new to Western medicine, and solid evidence for humans still needs far more research. (Healthline)

Māori knowledge and uses of fungi

Māori people knew which fungi tasted good and knew also to eat only those that weren’t poisonous. They also knew how to identify them and where to find them. Some of these edible fungi were also used for rongoā.

Only some of the fungi known as edible to our ancestors are shaped like mushrooms with a stalk and cap. Others have different shapes – for example, they may look like an animal ear or as hanging coral or even like an egg.

Go to Science Learning Hub and click on the fungi names in the interactive image to learn about how our ancestors used fungi and where different fungi are usually found. Source: Science Learning Hub 

Learn about the many ways Māori understood and used fungi. 

Learn more about Māori and mushrooms from the Meaning of Trees.  

Psytharellaceae

Activities

Activity 1:

Grow your own fungi

In this activity (created by Science Learning Hub), students explore what conditions are best suited to the growth of fungus and mould using different types of food.

By the end of this activity, students should be able to:

  • set up an experiment to observe fungi growing under different conditions
  • identify what conditions fungi prefer to grow in. 

Introduction

This activity enables students to observe how fungi grow in different conditions and identify what conditions fungi prefer to grow in.

What you’ll need

  • 4 slices of bread 
  • 1 piece of fruit cut into quarters
  • 4 tea bags
  • 4 paper plates
  • 3 small ziplock plastic bags

What to do

Working together, you will set up four different experiments to see what conditions fungi like to grow in by observing the conditions of cool temperature, no oxygen, moisture, and a control. 

  1. Prepare the food and position the plates as follows: 

Plate 1: Cool temperature

  • Put a slice of bread, a piece of fruit and a teabag on a paper plate.
  • Place the plate in a fridge.

Plate 2: No oxygen

  • Seal a slice of bread in a plastic ziplock bag. Try to exclude as much air as possible before you seal the bag shut.
  • Repeat with a piece of fruit and a tea bag in their own separate bags.
  • Place the three bags on the plate.
  • Put the plate in a position in the classroom where it won’t get disturbed.

Plate 3: Moisture

  • Place a slice of bread, a piece of fruit and a teabag in some boiled water.
  • Take them out of the water and place them on a plate.
  • Put the plate in a position in the classroom where it won’t get disturbed.

Plate 4: Control

  • Place a slice of bread, a piece of fruit and a teabag on a plate
  • Put the plate in a position in the classroom where it won’t get disturbed.

Begin experiment

  1. Have a look at the plates every 2–3 days. If you have a digital camera, you could take photos every few days and put them together to form a time lapse sequence. (It is important to be able to line up the camera exactly the same each time, so brainstorm ways you could do this.)
  2. Answer these questions: 
    1. How soon did fungi start appearing?
    2. On what food did fungi appear first?
    3. What plate was first?
    4. What plate and/or food was the slowest to form fungi?
    5. How long before the fungi changed colour? Was it the same on all food?
    6. How many different appearing fungi did you get? 
    7. Can you work out what conditions fungi prefer to grow in?
    8. How well did the fungi decompose the items in these different conditions?
Activity 2:

Make a Mycelium

Source: NPR

The purpose of this outdoor activity (created by the British Mycological Society) is to investigate the hidden parts of a fungus and to see how fairy rings might be formed. 

You will need:

  •  A central post to attach the strings to.
  •  12 (or more depending on the number of children) wooden posts or garden stakes with plastic pots fixed to the top (these are the food source stations)
  • Posts without pots on top to form a circle around the randomly placed posts with pots.
  • Coloured counters – enough for each child to collect 4 different colours
  • Ball of string for each child

Making a mycelium

  1. The children start out as a fungal spore, standing back to back in the middle of the posts (this is the point at which they were dropped by wind currents or some other vehicle after leaving the gills of their parent mushroom fruit body).
  2. Each child has a ball of string, attached to a central post and must unwind the string (the fungal hyphae) to become the network of tiny tubes that feed the fungus – the mycelium. The tubes are looking for food – on top of each food post there is a pot. In some of the pots there are coloured counters. These counters represent food. Each child or strand of the mycelium must find 4 different coloured counters before they have found enough food. Once they have enough food, the child will become the fruit body (mushroom) on the outside of the circle.
  3. Every time a child reaches a food post, they must wrap their bit of the mycelium around it and set off in a new direction until they have found 4 counters.
  4. Once 4 counters have been collected, the child finds an outside post that doesn’t already have a mushroom (child) there. An adult will check that the child has enough food and then they can bloom into a mushroom in the outer circle. Eventually all of the children will be mushrooms and a ‘fairy ring’ will have been formed.

Look back at the mycelial network and briefly explain about fairy rings. The tubes in the centre of the ring will gradually die off leaving the tubes around the edge of the ring active and producing a ring of mushrooms.

The children will be quite happy to rewind the strings and do this very quickly.

Activity 3:

Spore Prints

How to make a mushroom spore print

(created by Go Science Kids)

You can make a spore print with any mushroom and different mushrooms have different coloured spores and can create different patterns, providing many creative options within this activity.

For this activity, we decided to use a large field mushroom (also called portobella or open cap mushroom) since we’d bought one from the store earlier that day.

You’ll need:

  • a large field mushroom
  • a sharp knife
  • a piece of white paper
  • water
  • hairspray

Step 1: Buy a mushroom that has its gills mostly protected (or if its gills are exposed, try to choose one that’s as fresh as possible).

Note: if you’re going to pick a wild mushroom, don’t eat it unless you know its not poisonous! And please wash your hands carefully afterwards.

Step 2: Cut off the lower portion of the mushroom, exposing the gills. This should also ensure that the stem is flush with the underside.

Step 3: Place the top section of the mushroom gill-side down on a piece of paper.

Step 4: Add a few drops of water to the top of the mushroom cap to encourage the spores to drop. Cover with an upside down box, and set it aside somewhere where it won’t be disturbed. Leave overnight.

Step 5: The next day, gently lift the box and the mushroom, and you should see a beautiful spore print on the paper underneath!

Each individual spore is incredibly teeny tiny, but together they look really impressive. Notice how you can clearly see the shape of the gills. Isn’t it fascinating?!

Source: Go Science Kids

Learning Grid

  • Mushroom Poetry


    Watch this video featuring microbial ecologist Serita Frey and Sylvia Plath‘s poem, “Mushrooms”.

    Then create your own reflection about mushrooms in a few words, sentences, or write a poem.

  • Harore Hunt

    Watch these girls on a mushroom scavenger hunt in the ngahere (bush) of Aotearoa and then plan your own mushroom hunt! What will you look for? See if you can find different shapes and sizes or use this fungi hunt sheet.

  • Visit Te Mata Park

    Come Visit!

    Plan a hikoi at Te Mata Peak and go on a mushroom hunt!

  • Future Focus: Invention and Innovation

    You probably didn’t know mushrooms could be used to construct buildings and cure diseases. Mushrooms are being tested in innovative and imaginative ways to help society. Engineers, medical researchers, and designers are utilising the natural abilities of various fungi for antibiotics, building materials, water filtration, toxic waste cleanup, pest abatement, textiles, and other purposes.

    Watch this video from National Geographic answer the following questions:

    What do you think is the most important way fungi could be used in the future to help our society? Why? 

  • Trash Into Treasure

    Fungus recycles waste and turns it into nutrients for plants and soil. Think about what kind of things you could reuse or recycle to make something useful. Could you turn trash into treasure? 

    Find some used materials that would otherwise be thrown out (like paper, cardboard, toilet rolls, old t shirts, wood, and anything else you can find) and create recycled crafts and sculptures.

  • Future Focus: Technology

    Could mushrooms be the key to replacing plastics? Watch this video and discuss as a group.

DISCOVERY QUESTIONS

  • Are fungi useful? How?
  • What happened with the bread in the experiment? What was interesting about it?
  • How are you like fungi? How do you help break down things so it’s more usable to the environment in which you live?
  • Why are experts researching ways to use mushrooms as materials?

TAKE ACTION

  • Think about how fungi recycles and assess how you use things in your life. Do you reduce, reuse, recycle, buy recycled items, and compost your food scraps? To learn more about how to be a better recycler, check out recycle.co.nz.
  • Create a fungi map of your school and figure out where conditions are best for fungi growth. Then find an area to protect from foot traffic and watch what happens there.
  • Learn about conservation mycology (the protection of fungi). By preserving our forests, reforesting, and keeping our land and waterways clean, we allow the fungi to do their job of recycling waste and keeping our earth healthy.

EXPAND YOUR LEARNING