mushroom life cycle

Understanding the Mushroom Life Cycle: 3 Roles to Recognize

Learn about the mushroom life cycle, background info on mushrooms, and ways of incorporating this information in your own life, as a consumer or a grower.

Today we are sharing info on the mushroom life cycle, but first, let’s talk a little about the fungi kingdom. Fungi are a kingdom of living organisms that include an estimated 1.5 - 5 million species, though only about 5% have been named. Fungi are classified by three unique factors:

  1. Their cell walls contain Chitin;

  2. Their mode of digestion is absorption;

  3. They are heterotrophic (meaning they cannot produce their own food).

Mushroom-forming fungi are a subset of this kingdom that likely number close to 140,000 species. About 20,000 species have been identified, of those only 200 species have been cultivated, with about 20 reaching large scale cultivation. There is plenty of room for discovery in the fields of taxonomy and cultivation when it comes to mushroom-producing fungi. 

Three ecological roles within the mushroom life cycle

Mycorrhizal fungi form beneficial partnerships with plants and trees, trading water and nutrients for carbohydrates and sugars. Over 80% of plants have mycorrhizal partners. These fungi not only extend the root zone but they also link together different trees and tree species to exchange information and resources. A small amount of mycorrhizal fungi (Examples: truffles, porcini, chanterelle) produce mushrooms. These mushrooms tend to be high value because they are extremely difficult to cultivate. Mostly they get to market through wild foraging and not cultivation. If you are trying to cultivate mycorrhizal fungi, not only are you growing the fungus but you also need to worry about growing the tree species properly and creating the proper soil biome to successfully produce mushrooms. 

Parasites and Pathogens feed off living plants and trees and can range in their impacts; these are the disease fungi often focused on in forestry and agriculture. These fungi are not commonly cultivated but some mushroom producing parasites can also be saprophytic and easily grown like cordyceps and maitake. Others are great specialty mushrooms that are not readily cultivated like chaga and honey mushrooms. 

Saprophytes decompose dead organic matter (logs, woodchips, straw, sawdust, grain hulls, etc.) as a food source. These fungi are the reason we are not buried in dead organic material. The most commonly cultivated mushrooms: agaricus, oyster, shiitake, and lion’s mane are saprophytes. These are the easiest mushrooms to grow because you can work with dead material which is easy to manipulate. 

Mushrooms are highly nutritious and medicinal food, with twice the protein of most vegetables and rich in all the essential amino acids that humans need in their diet. They offer an excellent protein source with zero saturated fats, along with dietary fiber and minerals. Mushrooms also offer an impressive array of medicinal compounds that offer antiviral, antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, and immune modulating benefits. (Chang, 2004 and Wasser, 2002)

How the mushroom life cycle benefits the natural world 

  • Using decomposing mushrooms (Oyster, Agaricus, Wine Cap) in mulch to break down wood chips and compost, and build soil while producing food.

  • Linking log and stump cultivation with sustainable forage management practices to support long-term forest health.

  • Building biofilters to clean bacteria and particulates from stormwater.

  • Remediating toxins such as oil, gasoline, and heavy metals in soil with mushrooms (not compatible with food production and needs to be done with the support of environmental monitoring agencies).

  • Noxious and non-desirable plant species that grow rapidly (e.g. knotweed) can be harvested, dried, and utilized for cultivation of some specialty mushrooms (e.g. Oyster).

Mushroom cultivation is not just another agricultural crop, but one that can be used in many ways to support a wide range of goals and values for farms and gardens. While the pathways are many, it is not easy to harvest ALL the benefits, but rather best to focus on those that best meet your goals.

For instance, using local waste materials or invasive plants for cultivation is not necessarily compatible with goals for consistent, high-yielding, commercial operations (at least not currently). If you want to utilize mushrooms to bioremediate and build soil health, in many instances (especially urban landscapes) these mushrooms should not be harvested as a food crop. If your interest is mainly around medicinal properties, then a grower must invest more time and learning in all the details, as the level of education to customers or community members is much higher than when the focus is with selling mushrooms as an edible product. Whatever your aspirations, it’s important to reflect on what personal and community problem(s) you are seeking to resolve. 

Making the mushroom life cycle part of your life 

The mushroom life cycle is part of your life, too, even if you don’t always recognize it. Mycelium is under our feet as we walk along our paths in this world. 

If you are a mushroom grower, you’ve experienced the mushroom life cycle firsthand. If you have eaten mushrooms or you take mushroom extract supplements, then you have consumed the fruits of the mushroom life cycle. 

Here at Fungi Ally, we can help you become more acquainted with the mushroom life cycle by helping you grow for the first time. We can even help those with experience become professional mushroom farmers. How can we help you? We have online classes for those interested in growing mushrooms commercially or at home. We even have one on medicinal mushrooms. 

We also have mushroom spawn and mushroom growing kits to help you get growing with ease! 

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