The decay of plants keeps the surface of the earth littered with debris of fallen leaves and branches, and underground stems and roots. Swarms of microscopic plants, called bacteria, are at work reducing the tough, woody substances to their original elements — making vegetable mold, upon which living plants can subsist. Earth worms are helping, by consuming this mold, to mix the surface mulch with the mineral, earthy soil below. They are the natural plows that re duce clay and plant mold to that rich, productive mixture the farmer wants — a live, porous loam.
Among the other plant organisms that feed upon the broken and decaying parts of dead plants is a group of flowerless plants called fungi. They multiply unseen, in the moist warmth of decaying roots, under the bark of fallen logs, everywhere that stored plant food is available. Decaying plant tissues present the richest possible pasturage to fungi.
Finally, when their bodies are fat with nourish ment, they suddenly turn their energies to fruiting. Out of the ground, or out of some pile of decaying wood, a grove of pallid mushrooms appears. They come up in a night, and set us to marvelling. We have not seen the plants themselves. Tear the bark off of the rotten log, and there, between wood and bark, lie the pale threads, like a mass of tangled yarn. Without the weeks of growth un seen, no mushrooms could have been formed.
The pink-gilled meadow mushroom, whose cultivation is the absorbing occupation of many gardeners, and whose search takes us all into the fields in the fall of the year, is the species best known as a food plant. The fleshy, cream-colored umbrella is hung with dull pink "gills," that turn brown in a short time after the "button" opens into the umbrella. Cut a fresh one from the stem, and lay it on a sheet of white paper. Next morning you will find on the paper a pattern of the gills made by a fine dust that has fallen from each in a tiny ridge. A breath will blur the distinct lines, for the dust is impalpable, almost. These "spores" are to the mushroom what seeds are to the higher plants.
The claim that mushrooms are as nutritious as beefsteak may be exaggerated. Much of them is water. The reason they are good food is that they present us, in a new form, much of the rich material that was in the bodies of the plants whose decay it feeds on.
The tall "shaggy manes," with half-closed um brellas, and roughened surfaces, belong to the ink-caps, a group of mushrooms whose spores are not scattered by wind, as the powdery ones are, but carried off in an inky fluid, into which the gills seem to melt, as they pass their prime. They are not edible after the gills begin to darken.
Some of the gayest mushrooms are not fit to eat; a few of the pale edible-looking ones are deadly poison! The "destroying angel," called the "death cup," also grows in the woods among the fine, wholesome kinds, and it is most impor tant to let all mushrooms alone, unless you know, with certainty, the edible kinds at sight. People who do not know the good from the bad should not collect mushrooms, and rely on selecting the good ones later under the eye of a competent judge. The poisonous mushrooms contaminate those they touch. So there is real danger in taking any chances.
Pore-bearing fungi let their spores escape by minute holes in the under surface of the spongy umbrella, or bracket, of the fruiting body. The huge bracket fungi, of dying trees, and many of the brilliant red and yellow mushrooms of the woods, belong to this group.
Puff-balls are fungi of globular or pear shape, that burst on ripening, and their spores escape like a cloud of snuff, to be scattered by the wind. In the cheesy stage these fungi are good to eat. None is poisonous, though none is as rich in flavor as the best mushrooms.
Many people grow mushrooms for home use and for market in cellars. The soil is made by mixing horse manure with garden loam, and planting it with mushroom "spawn " — bits of the dried mycelium, or thread-like body substance, out of which the umbrellas rise. Though they grow in the light in meadows, these mushrooms are happier as "children of the dark."