What are the functions of mushrooms

The recycling specialists in our forests

Mushrooms are ubiquitous suppliers of nutrients

No living thing has been judged as differently in the course of history as the potentially immortal mushrooms. In the Middle Ages it was believed that mushrooms were not living things. Later they were assigned to plants, today they are recognized as a separate kingdom alongside plants and animals.

Velvet hood - Photo: Helge May

Fungi do not have photosynthesis pigments, but rather get their food from dead or living organisms. Thanks to their tiny, easily spreading spores, which are often formed in enormous quantities, fungi are ubiquitous and yet rarely apparent. Many can only be seen under a microscope, almost all of them grow hidden as a finely branched network in the respective substrate. We are most likely to perceive those species that form fruiting bodies. The fruit bodies are short-lived, spore-forming structures that we commonly refer to as fungi. The truffles, porcini mushrooms or morels, which are revered as culinary delicacies, are only the stages of reproduction of the species, similar to the apples of the apple tree.


Even 30 years after Chernobyl, fungi are still radioactively contaminated. How much depends on the type of mushroom and location. Fungi in eastern and southern Germany are the most heavily contaminated. Forest mushrooms have increased radioactivity, including tubular mushrooms such as chestnuts or birch boletus. The types of mushrooms that grow on wood are least polluted, such as the yellow chanterelle or the frilled mother hen. As long as you consume the mushrooms found in normal quantities, there is no need to panic.

Mushrooms and their importance for the natural balance

  • Together with the bacteria, fungi form the decomposition organisms (destructors) in the material cycle of our ecosystems. For example, they break down wood, dried up leaves, fruits, but also horn and fats. In doing so, they return nitrogen compounds and other substances to the soil, which are then available to plants and animals again. This "recycling" task makes mushrooms the nourishment of the forest from an ecological point of view.
  • Mushrooms also play a key role as symbiotic partners. Particularly noteworthy are lichens as a community with algae and the mycorrhiza, translated as "mushroom root", as a partnership between fungi and vascular plants. Most of our trees live in symbiosis with such fungi. Mycorrhizal fungi cover the fine roots of the tree, collect nutrients and convey them to the plants together with water. In return, the fungus receives the substances it needs for its life, especially sugar, proteins and vitamins
So far, around 100,000 species of mushrooms have been described. However, it is assumed that up to five million species exist worldwide. Thus, after the insects, fungi are the most species-rich group of organisms. It is estimated that around a billion mycelia or spores can be found in the topsoil of natural forests over an area of ​​one square meter.

Species decline

A threat to the forests means a threat to the fungi. In connection with research on forest dieback, it was recognized as early as the 1970s that forest dieback is preceded by fungus dieback or is linked to it. Many mushrooms are very sensitive to environmental pollution and are therefore reliable indicators of contamination. Many native mushroom species are endangered or have already died out. If the extinction of species in the forest is to be stopped, we must campaign for natural management and large-scale protected areas.


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