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Co-op 101: What is a Mushroom?

By Lucia Hulsether

What do you imagine when you imagine a mushroom? Many of us probably think about what we can find in the produce aisle of a mainstream grocery store: a small, whitish-brown thing that has a short stem and a domed top. But the world of mushrooms goes far beyond the button and shiitake varieties most common in the United States. Look a little further, and you’ll see them all around you–including at the Coop.

All of this leads to another question: what is a mushroom, anyway? Most broadly, mushrooms are a kind of fruiting body that is sprouted by a fungus. They are usually visible to the naked eye and can be picked by hand. Underneath the mushroom itself is mycelium, an enormous network of fungal threads that thrives in darkness and moisture, and sprouts fruit when the conditions are just right. They especially like to grow underneath wet leaves and around fallen trees.

Biologists estimate that there are between 1.5 and 5 million species of mushrooms in the world. Only about 20,000 of them have been identified. Of these, there is stunning diversity in shape, color, size, and use. Some mushrooms are poisonous; others possess healing properties. Some grow above ground; some grow underground. Some look like miniature umbrellas; others might look like a glob of peach jelly, a human ear, or a bright red softball.

This fall, keep your eyes out for mushrooms. You can do this on a hike, a backyard scavenger hunt, or even at the Co-op, where there are mushrooms tucked away in almost every area of the store. From medicinal teas, to truffle cheeses, to grow-your-own mushroom kits, to moisturizing products, to mushroom powders and dried mushrooms in the bulk bins, to the wide variety of fresh mushrooms in the produce section, the foraging opportunities abound.


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