Backyard Fungus Basics

smiling mushroomsFungi (pronounced FUN-jai, the last syllable rhyming with "eye"; singular "fungus") are not considered to be plants. They are their own thing, as are plants, animals, one-celled organisms, and the kingdom consisting of bacteria and blue-green algae. Therefore, when you see mushrooms such as the folks at the right (even if they're not smiling), you are seeing something that is much more strange and exotic than a "mere" weed, tree, or bush.

One difference between fungi and most plants noticed by backyard naturalists is that fungi don't photosynthesize -- they don't contain green chlorophyll so they don't use sunlight to produce carbohydrate, their food, by combining carbon dioxide with water. Fungi take their nourishment from three main sources:

  • dead things, in which case they are known as saprophytes
  • living things, which they hurt, in which case they are known as a parasites
  • living things, especially trees and shrubs, which they help obtain certain nutrients as they encrust rootlets. In exchange, the host helps the fungus by supplying moisture and other protection. This special form of cooperative arrangement is referred to as a mycorrhizal association

All fungi do not have the "mushroom shape" like those at the top of this page. Mushrooms are merely the reproductive structures of one particular kind of fungus, and there are many, many "kinds" of fungus. One of the great joys of studying fungi is discovering the enormous variety in the ways fungi look and behave. In fact, the fungus world is so large and diverse that we need to approach it systematically.

Therefore, let's begin by recognizing that the Kingdom of the Fungi can be divided into several groups, mostly based on features that most backyard naturalists without fancy microscopes and slide-preparation facilities can't confirm. Here are those five groups, and to learn more about them, just click on the links:


Club Fungi:
  • gill fungi
  • pore fungi
  • coral fungi
  • puffballs
  • earthstars
  • jelly fungi
  • stinkhorns
  • rusts
  • smuts

Imperfect Fungi:

  • yeast infections
  • athlete's foot

Conjugation Fungi:

  • bread molds
Sac Fungi:
  • morels
  • truffles
  • ergot
  • cup fungi
  • flask fungi
  • penicillin
  • brewer's yeast
  • blue-green molds
  • powdery mildew

Lichens (partly fungal):

  • fruticose
  • foliose
  • crustose
  • leprose

Return to the PLANT MENU
Return to the HOME PAGE