Fungi Fever

By Eve Pranis

I recently thought nothing of mushrooms, then I learned that they are nutritious and taste great! I have grown a respect for mushrooms and now think twice before stomping one in the forest!

-- sixth grader in Melbourne, FL

"For years, the usual vegetables like tomatoes and cucumbers graced our school garden and greenhouse," reports resource teacher Ann Donald. "As the students brainstormed what other items we might like to try growing, one wondered aloud, 'I wonder how mushrooms grow'."

Recalling the cost of gourmet grocery store mushrooms, the class wondered whether they might be able to grow their own. The students' research on the Internet yielded more understanding about these members of the fungi kingdom, free educational materials, and a wealth of questions. Their curiosity led them to a local mushroom farm, where they learned that unlike green plants, which produce food energy in the presence of sunlight, mushrooms derive their energy by digesting other organic matter.

The class returned from the trip with a 4-foot-long by 4-inch-diameter oak log, spores of shiitake mushrooms, and cultivation instructions. "When the kids learned that these types of mushrooms require low light conditions, they decided to use shade cloth to turn our greenhouse into a cave," explains Ann. Students drilled holes in the log, placed the spawn (microscopic reproductive mushroom spores inoculated into sterile grain seeds) in the holes, then sealed the holes with wax. While they waited patiently, students researched what makes fungi tick, learned about their contributions and dangers, and explored cultural uses of different types of mushrooms. After six months, students put the log in a cold bath for 48 hours, then watched edible mushrooms appear within just a few days.

"Since the process was so easy and each log had to rest three months before being re-inoculated with spores, we decided to start more logs in a rotation," explains Ann. When students realized what a good a price their product could command, they were determined to create a market for their homegrown fungi. But the entrepreneurs had to first be convinced, so they fried their harvest in butter, then held a taste test. "Most of the kids loved them," says Ann. Students then donned mushroom-shaped chefis hats and shared the fungi at a faculty gathering and PTA meeting. With thumbs up from this audience, they invited the supermarket manager to see their initial 60-pound harvest, and struck a long-term deal.

The school greenhouse is now a fully functioning fungi factory with mushrooms at all stages of development. Challenged to attract buyers and turn a profit, students created brochures and "fungi club" T-shirts, supply recipes to inspire consumers to buy their products, and maintain a computer database of all their production, expenses, and income. Last year's production totaled 300 pounds at $8 per pound. Now that's enough to inspire fungi fever!

Fungus Amongus

Yes, there really is fungus amongus! While you may regard fungi only as dangerous or slimy intruders that ruin your bread and make your feet smell and itch, they are also vital to the survival of all life. Since fungi can't produce food energy through photosynthesis, as plants do, they depend on energy-rich compounds from other organisms; in fact, they're the major decomposers and garbage eaters on the planet!

As fungi digest compost, wood, plant remains, and other organic matter, they release nutrients that can be used again by plants. Many fungi even live symbiotically (having a mutually beneficial relationship) with certain roots, making otherwise locked up nutrients directly available to plants. What's more, fungi manufacture penicillin and other medicines, produce alcohol in wine and beer, flavor cheeses, and raise bread. (Molds, yeasts, and what we commonly know as mushrooms are all part of the fungi kingdom.)

Digging Deeper with Mushrooms

Search outdoors for evidence of mushrooms growing. Elicit students' thoughts on whether mushrooms are living things. Based on observations of mushrooms and where they grow, what can students infer about how mushrooms meet their basic needs?

Make mushroom spore prints. Although mushrooms originate from microscopic spores, each type has a distinctive pattern formed when millions of spores are released from the "gills" on the underside of a

mature mushroom cap. Have students bring in different types of store-bought mushrooms with caps beginning to open. Break off each stem, then place the cap on a piece of white paper for two days. If mushrooms are mature, students should be able to see a unique print from each type. Have them

describe and compare spore patterns.

(Be sure to warn students never to ingest any mushroom that is not store-bought.)

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