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What kind of organism can stretch miles and miles underground unnoticed, helps you bake bread and ferment wine and cheeses, and can be prescribed by your doctor to fight off infections?

A: Fungi!

Morel mushroom
Morel mushroom

Fungi are so "weird" that they are in a Kingdom all by themselves. They have characteristics of plants but are extremely different. They do not photosynthesize and make their own food, instead, they are decomposers, living off of dead and decaying matter such as wood, leaves, and dung. There are numerous species and some are edible. Some are lethal and some are used medicinally, such as penicillin. Some yeasts are used to make bread rise or to give cheeses distinctive flavor or characteristics. They are so essential to ecosystems but very often are overlooked.

Many people express a passion for plants, but very few will admit that fungi are just as impressive. Consider this: One organism can stretch over miles and miles of land, and all you see are the fruiting bodies, what we call mushrooms. Tiny threadlike mycelium wanders and weaves its way underground on a constant quest for food for the organism. If along the way, male spores meet up with female egg cells, reproduction can take place and a fruiting body will grow and produce spores. Puffball fungi have fruiting bodies that are bigger than basketballs and some fungi have fruiting bodies so small you'll pass right by them.

Always be careful if you are going to pick edible mushrooms. Even the professionals have a time telling them apart from potentially lethal ones. Stick to the common morels here in Indiana and only eat them if you are certain. Look for them in light woods in the spring after warm rains. Don't eat too many if it's your first time as you may develop intestinal discomfort even though they are safe to eat.

Finally, give fungi a chance. If your school offers a mycology class--take it! They are truly amazing and misunderstood treasures!