Typically, we think of winter as a time for plants and animals to go dormant and settle down. Really there are hundreds of thousands of organisms growing during these cold, wet, dreary months! During the winter, we can go out and see so many different types of (drum roll, please…) – FUNGUS! What is growing beneath our feet? Fungi in winter!
Did you know that fungi aren’t weird plants? They are their own separate kingdom comprised of things other than just the mushrooms from the grocery store. To learn about some common Eastern United States Fungi and their purpose in the ecosystem, click here! Some look like a typical “mushroom” (club-like), others are little cups or sacs that shoot their spores out (think of them as fungi seeds), and others are molds (yeah, those gross, fuzzy looking things on that 6-week old refrigerator food).
Don’t be grossed out by them though! Fungi are amazing organisms that can survive for thousands of years (the oldest is roughly 8,650 years old and lives in the Blue Mountains!). Without these tiny little guys, we wouldn’t survive.
Imagine all of the trees, leaves, and dead animals that have ever existed just littering the forest floor. We would be buried in dead stuff – and THAT is gross! Fungi are decomposers, so they eat the dead things that we don’t want around. While they don’t have visible mouths or tummy’s, they do have chemicals and enzymes that break down organic material to absorb nutrients through their cell walls.
Some fungi are parasites, slowly decomposing their live host. While this sounds bad, the end product can be a dead tree that provides habitat for so many animals like beetles and other insects that woodpeckers love to munch on, and Osprey that only nest in dead trees. Once a tree dies, it opens up a space in the canopy, allowing sunlight to reach to the forest floor where saplings and other understory plants grow.
Others are much more happy-sounding. Mycorrhizal fungi participate in a mutually beneficial relationship with plants. They wrap hyphae (think “roots”) around the plant roots and exchange nutrients! The fungus provides the plant with soil nutrients that the plant can’t access and the plant provides the fungus with some energy that it obtained through photosynthesis (a process that fungi can’t do). This is so important to healthy plant growth to most plant species all over the world!
Fungi also can be a valuable winter food resource to animals like squirrels and other small rodents like voles. Slugs, while we don’t often think of them as beneficial, also enjoy eating a mushroom or two!
Fascinated by fungi but don’t want them decomposing your house? Check out some of my art to see what mushrooms or fungi can catch your eye!