Saprophytic mushrooms decompose dead wood and minerals for good

It is common to notice mushrooms growing on dead and fallen trees. As ancient oak trees that stood tall through the tests of time begin to decay for example, mushrooms, including oyster mushrooms or the Lions Mane mushroom, fruit out of the wood, breaking down the tree for food.

That is the role of saprophytic mushrooms – they are decomposers. Saprophytic mushrooms recycle wood and minerals to turn into nutrients in the soil for living plants, bugs, and other living organisms, according to mycologist Paul Stamets in his book, “Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World”.

Since mushrooms do not contain chlorophyll, unlike plants, they search for nutrients in organic matter instead of absorbing sunlight to create their own carbohydrates.

This is mostly thanks to the network helping mushrooms grow in the first place. Mycelium, a fungus, grows throughout the wood, soil, and other decaying matter to break down debris and feed the mushrooms. The mycelium stays alive when the fruited mushrooms are harvested, scavenging the matter for more carbon, nitrogen, and other fuel to revitalize the soil and potentially grow more mushrooms.

Stamets categorized wild saprophytic mushrooms into primary, secondary, and tertiary decomposers. Primary decomposers are the first fungi to grow on decaying matter. Mushrooms, such as the oyster and shiitake mushrooms, grow quickly to break down larger molecules into food.

Secondary decomposers slide in to continue decomposing plant and animal tissues after the first composting process. When there isn’t as much compostable material left, the tertiary saprophytic mushrooms stay back and grow.

Decomposers are essential to ecosystems and agriculture. Without their help in recycling nutrients from dead plants and animals, the soil would run out of nutrients, preventing more plants from growing and disrupting the entire food chain.

Saprophytes are one of four categories of fungi. The others are mycorrhizal, parasitic, and endophytic fungi. Mycorrhizal fungi are pals with plants. The plant will produce food from light and share the nutrients with the mushroom. In return, the fungi will scavenge in the soil and share nutrients and water with the plants. Endophytic fungi invade plant tissues, but they do not infect or damage them. This helps make the plants more tolerant.

Parasitic mushrooms inhabit hosts as well. This time however, they infect the host and drain them of nutrients, eventually killing them. Cordyceps are well-known parasitic fungi – they are literally called Zombie fungi and take over insects. After infecting ants and caterpillars, the fungus compels the insect to move to ideal conditions for the Cordyceps to spread. After the insect dies, the Cordyceps fruits out of its head. Believe it or not, these fungi have been described by old Chinese medical books and folk healers as a valuable medicine for humans.

The mushrooms we grow at JCB Mushrooms are saprophytic. The mushrooms feed off our growing blocks, which mostly include hardwood pellets and either soybean hulls or wheat bran. Once the mushroom spores are added to the mix, the mycelium’s mission begins. After about two rounds of mushrooms, the compost is set outside for people to use in their gardens and animal feed.

Some of our mushrooms, such as the Chestnut mushrooms and Lions Mane for example, sometimes grow on live trees as well. This means that while they are mainly saprophytic, they can also be parasitic. Some of them must be impatient... 

Disclaimer: Despite the references provided, the information on this page is for educational purposes only.

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