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Mushrooms: The Fungus You Thought You Knew

We don’t think much about mushrooms in a day-to-day basis. But I guarantee that, after reading this post featuring carefully curated ‘Mushroom Facts’, you’ll never look at them the same way again!

Rice Pilaf with Mushrooms - © chewoutloud.com

The big picture

According to a Reader’s Digest rundown on our friendliest fungus, the ubiquitous white button mushroom is by far the most-consumed fungus in the world. It’s found almost everywhere – except the polar regions. As such, it’s popularity has made it the most-cultivated variety, along with Creminis and Portobellos.

How much do folks love mushrooms? The US Agricultural Marketing Research Center reports that in 2015 – the most recent year a survey was done – the average American consumed about 3 lb. / 1.4 kg of mushrooms.

“The global mushroom market is expected to reach US$90 billion by 2028, up from US$63 billion in 2022.” This is a profound trend, considering that we’re currently on the doorstep of a massive shift away from animal protein toward plant-based forms.

On that note… Backyard grillers are already wise to the fact that a nice, big Portobello cap can make a delicious substitute for a beef burger patty! (See photo, top of page.) Considering today’s beef prices, depending on where you shop, Portobellos may actually be significantly cheaper than beef!

How many are there?

There are more than 100,000 known species of mushrooms on our planet. Around 300 of those are known to be edible.

Whether you were aware of it or not – likely not – about 75 percent of the Earth’s land surface is home to some variety of fungus.

How nutritious are they?

Even though the official mushroom Nutrition Facts listing shows only smatterings of ‘bulk’ nutrients such as protein, and very few Calories. But they are very rich in essential vitamins and minerals, and powerful antioxidants.

Mushrooms are recognised as useful in promoting heart health, fighting cancer and type 2 diabetes, and providing a rich natural source of folic acid, which is vital to the health of pregnant women and their babies.

Specifically, lion’s mane mushrooms contain compounds that can stimulate the growth of brain cells.

How big can they get?

Preamble: A mushroom plant is actually a network of root fibres called mycelium, which spread under the soil and occasionally erupt in the fungi ‘fruit’ that we harvest and enjoy. So it’s hard to tell how big the real mushroom is. But researchers have used DNA screening to confirm that the world’s largest known mushroom is the Honey Fungus, in Oregon, spanning 2.4 miles / 3.8 km. It’s the world’s largest known living organism, and may be thousands of years old.

More-familiar types of mushroom can also grow extremely large. And this time we’re talking about the fruiting bodies; the part we eat. The giant puffball frequently grows to 12 in. / 30 cm in diameter. But the largest one on record was over 5 ft. / 1.5 m wide, and weighed more than 50 lb. / 23 kg.

They’re survivors

If mushrooms can survive in the nuclear wasteland of the Chernobyl, they should be able to thrive almost anywhere ‘normal’. And they do, except for the polar regions and the heights of the world’s tallest mountains.

Believe it or not, mushrooms spores have been proven to survive in space!

They can grow in many different media. Soil is the usual habitat. But some varieties thrive on decaying wood. Even waste coffee grounds from the world’s ubiquitous coffee shops have been used as a substrate for mushroom cultivation.

Medicinal and religious uses

Mushrooms have been for medicinal purposes for thousands of years, especially in Asian and native American cultures. Today, they”re being tested as possible treatments for cancer.

So-called ‘magic mushrooms’, which contain the psycho-active substance psilocybin, have been used in religious ceremonies since ancient times. These species make up only a microscopic fraction of the total mushroom family but are highly sought after even today. Devotees say magic mushrooms can ‘expand their minds’ – a catch phrase popular in the 1960s and 70s. The scientific community remain s divided on the value of these fungi for enhancing mood, creativity and mental focus.

The medical and spiritual worlds are coming together with new studies investigating psilocybin as a possible treatment for depression, addiction and other hard-to-fight disorders.

More fun facts!

Herewith, a few additional but irresistible facts about our fungi friends, which didn’t really fit under any of the preceding headings…

  • Mushroom mycelium, once its host growing medium has been exhausted of nutrients, can be up-cycled into natural source ‘mushroom leather’ mainly used to make handbags and shoes.
  • Certain mushrooms are used in biodegradable packaging material.
  • The most valuable mushroom is the Italian White Alba Truffle, which fetches up to $3,600 per pound / $8,000 per kg.
  • According to scientists. mushrooms are more closely related to animals than they are to plants.
  • Certain types of mushrooms are bioluminescent – which means they glow in the dark.
  • Some mushroom species can break down plastic waste. That’s something scientists are looking into right now, to help curtail, and ideally destroy, the enormous burden of plastic in the environment.
  • Porcinis – unlike the vast majority of edible mushrooms –  are known for their protein content, comparable to that of soybeans.
  • Some mushrooms can grow as quickly as 5-10 cm in one day.

My take

Now you know more than you’ll ever have to, or probably want to know about mushrooms…

Go forth and feast upon fungus!

~ Maggie J.