Mycology Explained

Mycology is the study of fungi. Fungi such as mushrooms, toadstools, yeasts and molds were historically thought to be plants, but are in fact neither plant nor animal but a completely different species in their own right.

While Mycology may not seem to many to be a very important subject, life as we know it could not exist without fungi. There are several reasons for this, one of the main reasons is that the breakdown of all dead organic matter depends on fungi and without it we would soon be knee deep in dead plants and animals. Also without fungi to make nutrients, no trees could survive which would have disastrous effects on the planet.

We all know about mushrooms, an edible form of fungi but did you know that we all consume fungi nearly every day without realising it. Yeast is a form of fungi and is used in bread, dough (such as the base of your pizza), beer and wine. Without fungi there would be no blue cheese or brie. Quorn, the staple food of many vegetarians is also a fungi.

Not all types of fungi are benign. Many are poisonous and you should never pick and eat wild mushrooms unless you are very experienced in identifying them. The names mushroom and toadstool go back for many hundreds of years and the name toadstool was usually applied to poisonous fungi. Some species have their own names such as The Death Cap or The Destroying Angel which conveys how deadly they can be if eaten. The Fly Agaric is another poisonous fungi, however in moderation this toadstool has been traditionally used by Shamen to induce trances. This and other fungi with similar properties are referred to as “Magic Mushrooms”.

Fungi has been responsible for many disasters and deaths through time, it caused Ireland’s potato famine in 1845 and probably the Biblical famines in Egypt and Israel. As well as enabling trees to live, fungi have also destroyed many species, Dutch Elm Disease, Chestnut Blight and Beech Bark Disease are all caused by fungi.

Unfortunately, there is no easy way to tell edible fungi apart from the deadly poisonous varieties and some fungi that are poisonous when raw can be eaten when cooked. This is where Mycology is such an important science. Understanding and identifying fungi is only a small part of this vast subject. So far only 200,000 species of fungi have been identified world-wide but there are thought to be over a million species still unidentified.

Various types of mushrooms are good to eat but fungi are important for many other reasons. We owe the existence of Penicillin, many antibiotics and anti-infection drugs to fungi and the Mycologists who discovered them.