Fungi are some of the most under-appreciated organisms on the planet, and even the most simple forms can be fascinating and capable of enthralling all but the most listless eyes. Most people associate the word ‘mushroom’ with the button-shaped, styrofoam-flavored Agaricus bisporus, also known as Portabella, Crimini, baby bella, et cetera, ad nauseam. The marketing ploys for peddling this poor excuse for a mushroom are legion, and no matter what name comes on the package, it’s always the same. In that light, the purpose of this post is to unveil the magnificent beauty of the Fifth Kingdom.
You might wonder what the difference between a fungus and a mushroom is. I’ll clarify by simply saying that all mushrooms are fungi, but not all fungi are mushrooms – not even 10% are, and the taxonomic criterion are too numerous to describe, so I will from this point onwards describe any members of the class Agaricomycetes as mushrooms. Exceptions abound, and it should also be taken into account that I am not a mycologist, but merely an amateur with limited knowledge and resources at my disposal.
While many people consider foraging for edible mushrooms perilous at best, it is in fact entirely safe, and difficult to get into trouble while doing – providing the proper safety measures are taken. A popular myth is that the vast majority of mushrooms are poisonous, and only a select few are edible. An even more unfortunate myth is that the toxic compounds of poisonous mushrooms can be transmitted through the skin – this is not true. The most deadly mushrooms contain amatoxins, which cannot be metabolized unless eaten (so if you ever hear an overbearing mother warning her child that he will die if he touches that mushroom, please break the news; one of the reasons people end up with mycophobias is that they were brought up thinking that they would die a horrible death for touching a mushroom), and all other poisonous mushrooms follow suit (although there are fungi with toxic spores, they are not mushrooms and are few and far between). If properly identified, the only harm that can come from eating wild mushrooms is improper preparation, or more commonly, overindulgence.
Mushrooms are classified and identified based on a large number of characteristics, of which the layman generally only makes use of five or six: cap, gills, stalk, veil, spores, and habitat. Each of these characteristics can be further subdivided into multiple features. For example: the cap of Coprinellus disseminatus, also known as the non-inky Coprinus, is described as: 0.5 – 1.5 cm wide; bell-shaped to conves; deeply pleated, minutely scruffy; white, buff to honey-brown over center, becoming grayish toward margin. The habitat of this species might be described as: in great numbers, on deciduous wood debris, often in lawns and grassy areas.
Mushrooms come in a huge variety of shapes and colors, and despite this, are generally overlooked as natural wonders. The Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary is host to hundreds, if not thousands of species of mushrooms, some of which may be endemic. To my knowledge, no formal studies have been carried out to document the extent of the fungal diversity of the park, although I personally have photographed well over a hundred different species, each with its own peculiarities, be they prominent or inconspicous.
The veiled stinkorn (or rather one of the veiled stinkhorns – there are several species, of which I have found two in the reserve) pictured above, for example, takes its two-part name from two prominent characteristics that are interesting evolutionary characteristics. The first part, ‘Veiled’, is quite obvious, and should require no further explanation (although as a survival trait it has me stumped). The ‘Stinkhorn’ should raise more eyebrows, as photographs cannot share the odor that emanates from this fascinating mushroom. While in this particular member of the genus Phallus the odor is not as overpoweringly offensive as with some of its cousins, it is indeed characteristic. I refuse to slander this visually stupefying species, and so will only describe the odor of its cousin, Phallus ravenelii, as akin to rotting flesh. You might ask yourself why in the world a mushroom would evolve to smell like a dead animal, but the answer is in fact quite simple. The spore-slime that coats the knobbly top of the mushroom stinks because it attracts flies hoping for a corpse to feed on. The flies, upon arrival, walk all over the source of the smell searching for food. When the flies disembark and disperse, they carry the mushroom’s spores with them, and distribute them far and wide, unwittingly bringing about the genesis of the stinkhorn.