Mushrooms are actually a variety of fleshy, umbrella-shaped fungi (singular:fungus). They are very strange organisms because they have no stems, leaves or roots. They feed on tissues of other plants or animals, living or dead. They look like plants at first sight, but their cell walls are made not of cellulose but chitin, the hard substance that is found in animals horns and claws. Yet they can be call animals! Fungi like mushrooms belong to a kingdom of their own.
Mushrooms grow in forests and grassy areas and for the most part are invisible, till a shower of rain brings them out. Then one can see mushrooms and toadstools at the base of a tree, in wide rings on the ground or in lines along a rotting tree trunk. This sudden, almost overnight growth is characteristic of mushrooms. In fact, the stinkhorn mushrooms grow so fast, it can be heard! In just 20 minutes, it reaches its full size.
What is seen above the ground, are the branching threads which absorb food and water for the developing mushroom and hold it upright. The fruiting body of a mushroom consists of a stalked topped by a round cap. On the underside of the cap are thin, vertical plates called ‘gills’.
The spores or ‘seeds’ of the mushroom are minute and easily distributed by the wind. It is estimated that a single mushroom discharges ten thousand million spores from the ‘gills’ in the few days before it decays.
Though there are around 1800 species of edible, non-poisonous mushrooms, there are mainly that contain harmful toxins. Since there is no simple test to tell whether a mushroom is poisonous or not, wild mushrooms are best left alone.