The Fascinating World of Mushrooms and Mycelium

by Ian Phillips ’23

Mycology, or the scientific study of mushrooms and fungi, is a hobby that I have recently enjoyed. Among the fungi family there are a few notable ambassadors of the fungi kingdom, such as Entoloma hochstetteri, Morchella elata, and Amanita muscaria. Mushrooms are among some of the largest life forms on earth. In fact, the largest living organism on earth is a mycelium network of Armillaria ostoyae, otherwise known as the “Humongous Fungus”. This single network of mycelium stretches throughout 4 square miles of forest in Oregon’s Malheur National Park.

I originally got into mycology through the internet and the many communities that cultivate an interest in mushrooms. This exposure led to my fascination with mushrooms and eventually the cultivation of them. The process of cultivation and research, as seen from an outsider’s perspective, is intimidating to say the least, but after some research – for lack of a better phrase – it grows on you. 

Mycology usually falls into 3 categories: novelty, gourmet, and psychedelic. Novelty mushrooms are those like Entoloma hochstetteri; they’re grown to be observed and dried for storage or made into dyes and decorations. Gourmet mushrooms like that of the famous truffle and Morchella elata are mushrooms praised for their edibility and culinary capabilities. Psychedelic mushrooms are those that contain psychoactive substances like psilocybin and psilocin. The sale, cultivation, and possession of these kinds of mushrooms is a felony, though it is nonetheless a prevalent activity in the online mycology communities.

Mushrooms enjoy extremely humid and relatively warm conditions, like that of a rainforest or a swamp. Here in Washington, we are lucky enough to have a large variety of indigenous mushrooms of all types and purposes. Mushroom hunting (like that of truffles in Italy and other gourmet mushrooms in Europe and Asia) is a hobby that many Washingtonians participate in. Every spring and fall in this state, morels and toadstool mushrooms pop up all over the ground in Olympia and Northwestern Washington – though generally, mushrooms are found in temperate regions with lush forests and lots of year round humidity. 

For the more inquisitive of readers, this section of the article is dedicated to the cultivation process and the basics of mushroom growth. Mushroom cultivation can be divided into 3 different phases: colonization, fruiting conditions, and harvesting. Colonization is the process of the mycelium spreading throughout a substrate like soil, wood, compost, or feces; fungi do this in order to spread their network of mycelium fibres that transport water and nutrients to the fruiting body or mushroom, which at this point has not even started to pin or grow yet. 

At some point (3 weeks to a month, depending on size of substrate) the mycelium will have spread itself to the edges of the medium. At this point, the mushroom is ready to sprout and grow out of the substrate. This brings us to the 2nd stage: fruiting conditions. The sole reason mushrooms sprout is to reproduce asexually through spores. Spores are generally produced and dispersed through the gills of the mushroom. In order to induce mushroom sprouts or a pinset, there must be an increased amount of airflow and lowering temperatures. 

These new fruiting conditions are used to simulate the fall season and the coming cold. In  nature this means that the mushroom mycelium has to reproduce or drop spores in order to survive so they must create mushrooms. Once such fruiting conditions are introduced,  the mushrooms will begin to produce spores. The key to harvesting mushrooms is uprooting them before they start to release spores. It is at this point that they reach their peak amount of flavor and freshness. Mushrooms quickly start to decompose after they are taken from mycelium, so one must keep them in the fridge until they are eaten. 

Entoloma hochstetteri

Morchella elata 

Amanita Muscaria