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While mushrooms can appear at any time during the growing season, late summer and
early fall rains bring them on with a flourish. Strolling through my friend’s woodland
deep in the Ozarks a few days ago we were amazed at how many kinds of mushrooms had
sprung up after a recent rain. Amongst them was a nice harvest of orange chanterelles
which soon made their way into her frying pan seasoned with butter and garlic.
Mushrooms are ever-intriguing because of their almost magical appearance, the beauty
of their colors and sleek form and because, while many are edible, others will kill
you graveyard dead. Over 14,000 species have been recognized around the world growing
in any environment where plants grow. They are classic saprophytes – organisms that
live on dead or decaying organic matter.
Studying mushrooms is a branch of science called mycology, which is a subset of the
larger, better-known field of microbiology. Most of the 21,000 microbiologists in
the US are employed in some form of food safety while the relatively rare mycologists
are academic types associated with university biology or botany departments.
Back in the 1960s when I took my basic biology and botanical training, the world was
simple. There were four kingdoms of life: animals, plants and two types of single-celled
microorganisms, those with or without a nucleus. But about that time as the meaning
of Watson and Crick’s DNA discoveries was becoming better understood, taxonomists
began reconsidering how life should be organized. The basic goal of these organizational
schemes is to group like organisms together in such a way that they can theoretically
be traced back to a common ancient ancestor. For some reason, I’ve always found these
higher-level schemes of classification interesting even though their importance in
day-to-day life is pretty meaningless.
Today there are four or five (well maybe three, six, seven or eight) kingdoms of life
and – depending on the authority – two or three superdomains above the kingdom level.
Linnaeus established the idea of kingdoms of life in 1735 when he devised his binomial
classification scheme and arranged plants into families, genera and species. Recognizing
that the kingdom model was insufficient for an inclusive classification scheme, two
empires were added above the kingdoms in the 1920s. In the 1970s five kingdoms of
life were proposed with fungi separated from the plants.
But with the adoption of RNA and DNA taxonomic techniques in the late 1970s, it became
apparent that plants, animals and fungi are more closely related to each other than
they are to bacteria, so the shuffling of the deck of life continued. Current thinking
– and by no means is it universally accepted – uses superdomains to separate life
into organisms with cell walls and those without (viruses for example). Life with
cell walls is then divided into two domains; the Prokaryotes (single-celled organisms
that lack a cell nucleus) and the Eukaryotes (organisms with a nucleus enclosed inside
a nuclear membrane). The Eukaryotes are then subdivided into four (sometimes five
or more) kingdoms. The simplest four-kingdom model recognizes animals, plants, fungi
and Protista (a miscellaneous group that have nuclei but obviously aren’t plants,
animals or fungi).
Unfortunately, none of these schemes are bulletproof. Some of the extremophiles, bacteria-like
organisms found in oceanic volcano vents and similar other-worldly environments, don’t
comfortably nest in this arrangement. But redrawing these classification schemes is
a popular parlor game amongst academics, so let the fun continue.
None of this need concern the mushroom hunter as you shuffle through the woods after
a soaking fall rain. Their beauty and charm are there for all to see and enjoy. But
foraging for edible mushrooms can be a dangerous and deadly game. Remember the old
adage: “There are no old, bold mushroom hunters.” Only go mushroom hunting with someone
who knows what they are doing, and if in doubt, assume the mushroom is a deadly toadstool.
Gerald Klingaman is a retired Arkansas Extension Horticulturist and retired Operations
Director for the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks. After more than two decades of penning the popular Plant of the Week column, he’s taking a new direction, offering views on nature as he pokes about the
state and nation. Views and opinions reflect those of the author and are not those
of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture. If you have questions
or comments for Dr. Klingaman about these articles contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.