Mycology 101

This section is meant as a primer for anyone who want’s to get started with growing their own mushrooms. Before we can get to the growing part though, it’s important to know some basic facts about mushrooms and Fungi in general. While a lot of this might be review for you, it is written assuming you no nothing about mushrooms, so feel free to skip around.

What are Mushrooms?

When many people think of fungus they typically think of mushrooms, but the mushroom is actually just one small part of the larger organism. Mushrooms are the fruiting body of a fungus that produces the spores that will grow up to become the next generation. The real ‘body’ of the fungus is actually a sprawling network of mycelium, a threadlike substance that spreads through organic material like roots.

The reason many people think of mushrooms as the main part of fungi is because that’s often the only part we see. The rest of the organism is underground, in logs, or spread out like a web of large areas. Additionally, the mushroom is typically the part of the organism we eat, if they are in fact edible.

Mushrooms themselves come in all shapes and sizes. There are more than 70,000 species of fungi on the planet and we only see a small selection of them in everyday life. Of this small slice we eat even fewer, so most people aren’t aware of the shocking variety of mushroom diversity that exists in the world.

Parts of a Mushroom


A mushroom is composed of five major parts:

  • The Cap – the top-most part of the mushroom.
  • The Gills – the area usually found just under the cap which holds the spores.
  • The Ring – the area from which the cap emerges from the stem.
  • The Stem – Much like a plant stem, it’s the part that holds up the cap.
  • The Volva – the mycelium body from which the mushroom emerges.

These parts make up most of the mushrooms you see, even if they are hard to identify due to their morphology. Different types of mushrooms have these parts presented in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. Furthermore, some mushrooms present no visible stems or caps. Some seem to just blend the parts together. When we discuss mushrooms on this site we will venture to use these terms accurately, but know that the basic parts will help you identify and discuss mushrooms better.

The Mushroom Life-cycle

When we talk about the life-cycle of a mushroom, we’re talking about the life cycle of the whole fungus, but we focus on the part we see and use most often. The process can be simplified into a few steps if we’re not too concerned about all of the details:

  1. Male and female spore emerge from the mushroom.
  2. The spores grow hyphae, long thin hair like cell chains.
  3. Male and female hyphae meet and combine.
  4. The combined cells grow into root like mycelium.
  5. The mycelium matures and begins producing fruiting bodies
  6. The fruiting bodies emerge as mushrooms and the cycle repeats

A lot of other complicated stuff happens in each of these steps, but for the most part this should be enough to get you comfortable with the basics of mushroom growth and their life-cycle

More About Fungi

It’s worth taking a moment to cover some basics of fungi as well. While not all fungi have visible mushrooms, and many are not eaten, we still want to help people understand the absolute basics that all share in common.

Fungi are natural recyclers. Unlike plants, they don’t get their energy from the sun. Fungi instead decompose and digest organic material. Critically fungi play a huge role in turning dead materials back into soil that then sustains plants and animals. In many cases fungi are the only organisms on earth that effectively break down and digest more complex organic substances like keratin or lignin, components of animals and trees respectively.

Not all fungi are good for us. Some are infectious, others poisonous, and more than a few are pests for gardeners. Despite this, fungi are an incredibly important part of our ecosystem and play a huge part keeping the world habitable. Without fungi many materials wouldn’t rot effectively and organic waste would pile up or even become toxic.

While the blog will focus specifically on mushrooms most of the time, we will throw in the the occasional piece on fungi in general, so stay tuned if that’s what you’re into!

Edible Mushrooms

We’ve talked a lot about mushrooms so far, but we haven’t yet touched on perhaps the best part – eating them!

So how many are edible?

Of the 70,000+ species of fungi, about 50,000 produce mushrooms. Of that 50,000 about 10,000 are poisonous or toxic. That leaves us with 40,000 species of mushrooms we can eat right?

While it’s true, there are thousands of mushrooms that are ‘technically’ edible, only about 20 or so varieties really get eaten on a regular basis. The biggest reason for this is flavor. A lot of mushrooms don’t taste very good. Another reason we eat so few is that some of the mushrooms we like aren’t easy to grow large scale, making them rare treats.

The most common edible mushrooms are:

  • Cremini or Button Mushrooms
  • Morel Mushrooms
  • Shiitake Mushrooms
  • Oyster Mushrooms
  • Lion’s Mane Mushrooms
  • Enoki Mushrooms
  • Portobello Mushrooms
  • Procini Mushrooms
  • Chanterelles
  • Maitake or Hen of the Woods
  • Wood Ear Mushrooms
  • Truffles

The above list is not inclusive of all edible mushrooms (there are thousands), but these are the most commonly eaten ones both in North America and worldwide. Many of these have several species or sub-species as well as different cultivars for the ones that are grown commercially.

Growing and Cultivation

As mentioned above, fungi grow from spores and go through a life-cycle that culminates in the production of the mushrooms we know and love. Many think that because mushrooms grow from microscopic cells that farming them is a difficult task, but that’s not always the case. Some mushrooms can easily be grown at home with minimal effort.

Most mushrooms grow on a bed of wood chips, grain, straw, or other organic material they can ingest. When you blend spores and their nutrients together you get a growing fungi known at this stage of its life as spawn.

Mushroom spawn is similar to the seedlings you might have if your were growing a traditional vegetable garden. They’ve just started and are on their way to making mushrooms with the right care.

Growing Spawn into Mushrooms: The Right Conditions

Mushrooms typically like to grow in to cool humid places. They often prefer the dark or area’s away from direct sunlight. Because of this home basements can be a perfect place to raise mushrooms, especially if it’s cooler than the rest of your house as most home grown mushrooms do best in temperatures of 55-60 degrees Fahrenheit (12 – 15 Celsius). This is because in hotter temperatures the mushrooms tend to dry out.

Once you’ve got the right conditions figured out, mushrooms grow like anything else. You plant your spawn, keep conditions ideal, and soon you’ll have tasty mushrooms ready to eat. This is easier said than done, but once you get the hang of it it’s no harder than traditional gardening.

Each type of mushroom will need different conditions to flourish. Some are more sensitive to light and heat than others. For example, Enoki mushrooms grow best in even cooler temperatures than others (about 45F or 7C). Because of this it’s always important to make sure you know the ideal conditions for the type of mushroom you’re growing. You might not get things perfect, but most commonly grown mushrooms are relatively forgiving about their conditions.

In addition to keeping the temperature and moisture in the right ranges, some mushrooms require certain nutrients to thrive. Oyster mushrooms, for example, grow best on aspen wood chips. Other mushrooms prefer coffee grounds, logs, or even normal garden compost. Each has it’s advantages and disadvantages should be matched the mushrooms that will grow best it.

While you’ll be growing mushrooms in all different ways on all different mediums, remember the quality and cleanliness of your growth medium makes a big difference in your yield. Be sure to use materials that aren’t chemically treated and take care to ensure your growth medium is free of contaminants for best results.

Common Terms and Phrases

In this section already you’ve seen terms like hyphae, mycelium, and volva; all terms specific to mushrooms. These are just the first of many terms you’ll want to familiarize yourself with if you want to get into growing mushrooms.

We want to help our readers understand mushrooms better. However, we can’t define every term we use in every post. To get around this we’ve also created a Fungi Term Glossary. This is were we will define all the terms we use on a regular basis. If you ever run into a term you don’t know, start there.