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Mushrooms are not only delicious and healthy they are also fascinating.

T here are currently about 10,000 known varieties of mushroom and scientists are discovering more all the time. They have the unique classification of fungi, meaning they are neither animal or vegetable.

In fact, mushrooms are considered genetically closer to humans than they are to plants. This is because, at some point in history, our genetic predecessors split from those of plants. We then divided again into many individual species, but we share a common ancestor with fungi that plants do not.

If we consider also that most fungi feed on decaying matter, they might even start to seem a little creepy, whereas the majority of plants make their own food during the process of photosynthesis.

We are really just beginning to uncover the mysteries of mushrooms and fungi. It’s believed that we have only discovered a very small percentage of all the species here on earth.

Massive mushrooms

The bulk of the mushroom consists of stringy white mycelium which grows underneath the earth (or through objects such as dead trees) and has been known to extend for miles. In fact, the largest mushroom yet discovered measures up to 2.4 miles across and is in the Malheur National Forest in Oregon.

The Oregon fungus is not only the largest mushroom ever discovered, but also believed to be the largest living organism on earth.

It was first discovered in 1998 when research was conducted into large scale die-off of trees in the area. Root samples from a selection of trees showed they were all affected by the same fungus, known as Armillaria or honey fungus, which colonizes and eventually kills its host. This Oregon native is believed to be more than 8,500 years old and weigh at least 7,500 tons.

Mushrooms in history

In 2007, giant fossils called prototaxites were confirmed to be a type of ancient fungi. The fossils which grew up to 6 metres tall were originally believed to have been a type of early tree. They lived more than 350 million years ago and would have dominated the landscape amid the low growing ferns that lived around that time.

Agaricus bisporus, also known as the button mushroom, is probably the most commonly encountered in North America, Europe and maybe the whole world. Button and cremini mushrooms are actually just different varieties of the same mushroom.

The white button mushrooms we know today were first grown accidentally at Keystone Mushroom farm in Pennsylvania in 1925 and have been cultivated ever since. The mushroom’s history as a cultivated food crop in the West is not that old and began most likely around the mid-1600s.

The methods for growing button mushrooms are thought to have been developed in France around this time. Melon farmers near Paris noticed that when water used to clean mushrooms was poured onto the spent melon beds, they got crops of mushrooms.

Though they didn’t understand the science behind this, they noted its usefulness and proceeded to experiment. This method quickly spread across Europe and, by 1865, had made its way across the Atlantic to America.

Prior to this, there was little recorded knowledge of mushroom cultivation in Europe and America. China had the most historical literature on the cultivation of fungus, but even that is pretty sparse. According to the International Society for Mushroom Science, the first mushrooms were cultivated there around 600 A.D.

The Lentinula mushroom or shiitake, as it is commonly known, was first cultivated in China around 1100 A.D. on logs of decaying wood. This technique spread to Japan and shiitake was a staple food for the country’s communities of buddhist monks who ate a strict vegetarian diet.

Medicinal benefits

Though mushrooms have apparently been used in Eastern medicine for many hundreds of years, they are yet to gain acceptance in the West. There are claims that mushrooms can help fight cancer, aid weight loss and boost immunity, but for now, lack of clinical trials means we don’t yet know.

We should also consider that historically Western and Eastern medicinal practices are fundamentally different. Traditional Chinese medicine takes a more holistic approach by considering the overall health of the individual, and views good health as a long term goal.

This could include taking regular supplements of mushroom or herb tonics throughout a person’s life. In the West, however, people have generally taken a much more myopic view of their personal health and only begin to treat an illness after it has occured.

In recent years, psilocybin, which is the hallucinogenic property in magic mushrooms, is being trialled as an effective drug to treat certain addiction and mental health issues. When used in small doses, psilocybin has been shown to be effective in treating individuals with drug, alcohol and tobacco dependencies, obsessive compulsive disorders, anxiety, and depression.

Mushrooms are also a great winter food. They are the only non-animal source of vitamin D in nature. By exposing mushrooms to sunlight, they naturally produce vitamin D in the same way that we do. What’s more, for maximum nutrition, you can drastically increase the amount of vitamin D in mushrooms by leaving them to dry out in the sun.

Bioluminescent fungi

If you have ever Googled all the odd looking varieties of mushroom, you will know they come in all manner of shapes, colors and sizes. Aside from the common umbrella-shaped fungi we are familiar with, they can also be round like the giant puffball, bracketed, horn shaped, veiled, conical and dog genitalia shaped (Really, it’s called the dog stinkhorn. Look it up).

Just when you thought they couldn’t get any weirder, they can also glow in the dark! Most often found in temperate and tropical parts of the globe, there are about 75 species of bioluminescent fungi that have currently been discovered.

It is not totally known why these fungi have developed this characteristic and how it aids their natural cycles. It is clear that we still have a lot to learn about mushrooms.

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