Have you ever wondered how mushrooms grow?
You’re not alone.
Due to its humble nature, the fungal kingdom remains a mystery to many. Hiding out of sight and mind, mushrooms pop up one day and disappear the next. They grow in damp, dark, shrouded places in seeming opposition to their plant counterparts. In fact, it wasn’t until the 1970s that science formally distinguished fungi as separate from flora, recognizing fungi as its own kingdom in the tree of life.
While the life cycle of mushrooms somewhat mirrors that of plants, fungi are actually closer related to animals like you and I than to the leafy greens and apples we eat.
At the Fungi Academy, we’re always trying to look at the world from a fungal perspective. In some ways, there’s no better approach than imagining yourself living the life of a mushroom. So strip off that meat-suit and get ready to dive into interconnection as we learn how mushrooms grow.
The Fungal Factors
Come and join me on a journey. No, not that kind 😂 (though a microdose wouldn’t hurt 😉). To become a mushroom, we must first understand our constituent parts. A mushroom is just the tip of the iceberg! To understand what is necessary to create these mushroom masterpieces, let’s use an apple tree as an analogy:
Birth: May the Spores Be with You
You are a spore, birthed from the meiosis of your parent mushrooms’ cells. You take to the wind —either passively via gravity or shot out of a cannon at 25m/s 😱—with billions of your sporulating brothers and sisters. The vast majority of these spores won’t make mushrooms. Instead, perhaps they’ll take the Modest Mouse approach and continue to float on. Some may lie dormant for centuries. And some adventurous types may take a trip into space to start a colony on another planet. Maybe some Alien is writing an article about how mushrooms grow, too. 🤔
Life as a Hyphae: Germination Station
But you, you’re one of the lucky spores. You land on a perfect substrate. If you’re an Ascomycota, it’s a one-man show as asexual reproduction is the name of the game. If you’re a Basidiomycete, however, you’ll have to be patient because it takes two to tango.
For the purpose of our story, let’s say you’re a happy Psilocybe Cubensis spore on a mission from Pachamama to inoculate the minds and spirits of the human race. Just like the sprout of an apple tree, you will begin your growth slow and steady by forming hyphae, one cell wall thick filaments extending from a germinated spore in search of nutrients.
At this point, you’re just a haploid cell, meaning you have a single nucleus and one set of chromosomes in your cell. Consider this your ‘coming of age’ moment, on the prowl looking for that special other hyphae to make a match.
Luckily for you, Basidiomycota are, let’s say, promiscuous. Unity occurs when an “A” mating type meets its “B” match (similar to female and male). A single species can produce over 12,000 combinations of possible “A” and “B” type matches. With around a 90% compatibility rate, the odds of finding a mate are in your favor.
Dim the lights and put on some Marvin Gaye because it’s plasmogamy time. You and your hyphal haploid counterparts join together and become entangled, forming mycelium, a dense collection of hyphae full of multi-nucleated diploid cells and hyphal haploids scouring the soil to feed this new partnership.
As a hypha, life was good but very one-dimensional. As a mycelium, you’re able to form endless amounts of connections and points of perception. You’re a collaborator, negotiator, and ecosystem protector. You might break down lignin in plants to help form arable soil for other microorganisms. You may help a mother tree send vital nutrients to her offspring. Or you may warn neighboring plants of an imminent attack. You’re the internet of the forest, the wood wide web, the archetype of community.
Mushrooming: The Fruits of Reproduction
Once you’ve established your foothold in the ecosystem, it’s time to fulfill the destiny of all life on earth – to reproduce and continue the cycle anew. You’ve consumed all your substrate, whether cow dung, coffee grounds, hay, or grain, to name a few. Now there’s only one place to go – up and out! Some of your cousins burst forth into the open air with such force they can break through asphalt!
You rise from the first floor, spread your cap wide, and begin dropping spores to ensure the next generation has the same opportunities you did. With any luck, an animal friend will come and pluck you from the ground, carrying you away in their basket or belly and spreading your spore babies far and wide.
This is how mushrooms grow. The entire process can take a few weeks or a few decades!
When you grow mushrooms, you have control of the entire process. But before you can control anything, you must first understand it. This is why knowing how mushrooms grow is a fundamental building block to becoming a successful cultivator.
And while this serves as an illuminating, approachable illustration of the mushroom life cycle and how mushrooms grow, try not to get too hung up on the anthropomorphization of our tale. Fungi are proving to be more complex creatures than we can even begin to understand.
If you want to delve further into the fascinating world of fungi and learn not just how mushrooms grow but how you can grow them yourself, join us in person or online so we can continue to learn together and collaborate, just like fungi!
About the Author
Colin first discovered the world of fungi through his interest in permaculture. The more he learned, the more he became mesmerized by mushrooms. This first lead him to the Fungi Academy in his van in the spring of 2020 where spent 10 weeks discovering another home outside his native Canada. A year later, Colin returned to take over Community Manager duties at the academy. A self-proclaimed nerd, he is fascinated by the potential of community life, mycoremediation, mycofiltration and psychedelic assisted therapy to help change the world.