Fungi is a term used to describe the largest group of non-flowering plants that lack chlorophyll and subsist by feeding upon dead or living hosts. The host environment is usually abundant with bacteria and other micro-organisms. Because of their inability to make their own food via photosynthesis, many people in the scientific community are reluctant to class fungi in the same kingdom as plants.
Fungi made their appearance on Earth some six hundred million years ago — about the same time amphibians first appeared. Over one hundred thousand species of fungi exist world-wide. Many species of fungi are considered to be poisonous or virulent parasites but numerous other species have been found to have important health benefits as well as having enormous economic value.
Many of us know, for instance, that the Japanese Shiitake, or forest mushroom, is a popular ingredient in Oriental cuisine and is purported to have both immune-enhancing and anti-tumor compounds in its chemical make-up. Likewise, Kombucha or Manchurian “mushroom” (not a true mushroom but rather a yeast culture) has also been in the limelight claiming to be a super immune booster that fights a long list of ailments, including AIDS, cancer, diabetes, gout and other auto-immune disorders. But did you know also that the “drug” we call Penicillin is also derived from a sac fungus that feeds on citrus fruits? There is another widely used “drug” specific for the control of pain and inflammation, called Cortisone, whose main source comes from a fungus (Rhizopus) that is “grown” on white bread.
Of course most of use know the distinctive taste of Roquefort and Camermbert cheese — and also the fine wines, which are sipped with cheese, and how about the breads and crackers on which these cheeses are spread? Did you know, however that without the specialized fungi that exist in the form of yeasts, that none of these products would exist?
Another form of fungus that is consumed almost daily by macrobiotic followers in the form of miso soup is made from the microscopic fungi called Aspergillus — the same fungus that is used in photographic developers and black ink. Tempeh is a nother fermented product that utilizes fungi in its production.
To better understand these ancient “plants” it is important to examine the four broad classes to which they have been classified. ( Note: a fifth class — slime molds was recently dropped.) Each class is determined mainly by aspects of sexual reproduction and by the form of their flagellated cells (if they are present).
1. algal fungi
All are microscopic and grow in water and damp soil. Many species in this group are responsible for blights (like Irish Potato Famine) and other plant diseases. Some species, such as Rhizopus however, are used as a source of cortisone and other “drugs”
2. sac fungi
Found in this group are the microscopic fungi which include the yeasts and the blue and green molds often seen on decaying citrus fruits, in jellies and on leather. Some species, like Penicillium are economically useful, but others such as Ceratocystis ulmi which causes Dutch Elm Disease and Ergot (Clavicep s purpurea) which infects rye crops, can cause mass destruction. In controlled doses, however, Ergot becomes an important alkaloid used to control hemmorrage (during the birthing process) as well as in the treatment of migraine. In addition, there are a number of sac fungi that are highly edible, like the prized Truffles and Morels. It might be of interest to note that Candida albicans is another species of sac fungi that is parasitic in human beings and aids in the normal functioning of the digestive tract. Tempeh is made from a species of yeast in this group, and Brewer’s Yeast falls into this catergory as well. Both of these fungi are high in B-vitamins and contain more protein than whole wheat flour.
3. imperfect fungi
This group includes all the microscopic fungi whose life cycles and reproductive cycles are not well known, like the molds that mildew walls and spot clothes, as well as those that cause plant diseases, athlete’s foot, and ringworm. Some of these fungi are useful like Aspergillus, used in the production of miso. On the other hand, some species in this group, like Alternaria, can cause hay fever in people with weakened immune systems.
4. club (basidium) fungi
This is the largest group of fungi which includes rusts and smuts that attack specific plants, such as corn, beans, apples, wheat, asparagus, coffee, roses and barberry. Edible Jelly and Ear Fungi also fall into this group, and more recently Tremella (used in Chinese cooking) has been found to be beneficial to the heart, helping to lower blood cholesterol and blood pressure. Various other species of Tremella have been found to inhibit tumor growth and have been used to treat asthma and other bronchial inflammations . Reproductive spores found in this group are not produced in the fruiting body. A second division exists in the club fungi group which do produce spores within the fruiting body (unicellular) and it is into this group where all true “mushrooms” are placed. While most species in this group have a fruiting body that is differentiated into cap (primitive flower) stipe (primitive stalk) and gills, some species are not so clearly defined. While many of the mushrooms in this division are edible and delicious, a large number of them, such as the Amanita’s are deadly poisonous.
Mushroom identification is a complex procedure which involves a thorough understanding of fungi anatomy as well as spore identification. An experienced mycologist will usually take into consideration such factors as the season of growth, coloration of cap and gills, odor and taste. Even after weighing all of the above details it is important to double-check one’s own information by cross-referencing it with more technical field guides in order to make a positive identification.
Individual reactions to eating mushrooms vary greatly. What may be deemed safe and palatable to one may taste different and produce a toxic reaction in someone else. Please be careful when consuming mushrooms found in the wild — this cannot be over-stressed. One medicine man whom I worked with for a number of years, who had been gathering wild plants for the over sixty years, would never eat a mushroom he found outside a grocery store. For Red Thunder Cloud “it’s just not worth risking my life for”.
By using yin/yang application one readily can see that the vast family of fungi fall under the dominance of yin. These fragile forms need plenty of heat and require much water in order for them to grow. Their growth factor is rapid — sometimes they reach full maturity in a matter of a few days! Slow growth, which is a more yang factor, exists rarely in the fungi kingdom, save for a handful of stump loving shelf mushrooms and poly pores, which for the most part are edible.
Here are some basic guidelines when collecting mushrooms in the wild:
- Never consume any fungi that can’t be identified.
- Never eat a fungus that has deteriorated or has been invaded by insects.
- Be sure to dig up all underground parts when collecting — this will held determine if a volva is present — never eat a fungus that has both a volva and a ring
- Do not mix fungi species as they are collected — keep one gathering basket f or known edibles and, in another basket place unknown species in sealed sandwich bags until identified
- Save a part of a mushroom that you plan to eat so that it can be identified in a hospital lab if you have a reaction.
- Eat only a small portion of a fungi species when trying it for the first time .
- Never eat mushrooms from the wild that are raw. Cook them first. Also never give questionable fungi species to young children or the elderly.
- Be extremely careful identifying fungi. Consult a knowledgeable person and have good reference guides. It is advisable to learn to make a simple spore print and keep them labeled and filed. You may also want to keep handy the telephone number of your nearest Poison Control Center.