A fantastic images of 3 Liberty Caps basking in the morning sunshine.  Lovely. Image courtesy of Chips55.

The winning entry in the Shroom Liberation Front's 2009 Shroom Photographer of the Year Award. Chips55 rose to the challenge to try and capture our sacred mushrooms at their natural, magical best, in the wild.

Mushroom Life Cycle

Mushrooms - or carpophores, to give them their scientific name do not represent the entirety of the organism, merely the reproductive structure, or fruiting body concerned with propagating genes into the next generation. The main body actually consists of network of microscopic threads, or hyphae, which grow and branch through the species’ preferred substrate, forming what is called a mycelium. Mycelia can grow to a vast size. One of the largest has been found in America, a single root fungus, and Armillaria bulbosa. This specimen occupies an area of about fifteen hectares, weighs in the region of 10,000 kg, and is probably about fifteen hundred years old.

Mushrooms and toadstools exist solely to produce spores, which they do by the million. Released and sometimes fired forcibly into the air, these microscopic “seeds” are blown away by the slightest breeze until, if lucky, they land on a suitable substrate where, when conditions are right, they will germinate. A single hyphal thread hatches out of the spore and expands outwards, rather like the long modelling balloons used by stage conjurors, but inflated by water pressure, not air. The hypha grows, splits and branches this way and that, sensing its way to where pockets of nutrients can be found and absorbed through its semi-permeable wall. At this stage the fungus is monokayotic, that is, it contains only one nucleus and one complete set of chromosomes and though viable for a short time, will die if it does not “mate” Unlike the dioecious higher organisms, fungi have many hundreds of different mating types – sexes if you will, though the analogy is not precise - to choose from. When two compatible types meet, they fuse together in such a way that each hyphal cell then contains two distinct nuclei, two complete sets of chromosomes, which coexist together harmoniously until environmental cues trigger true sexual reproduction.

a lovely fat toadstool type mushroom.  We couldn't identify this so don't know if it's edible or not

In the temperate zones fungal reproduction is usually spurred on by the onset of winter – frost being the greatest enemy of an organism consisting mostly of water – but elsewhere shortage of nutrients may be the trigger. When environmental cues indicate a period of stress, the ever expanding hyphae suddenly grow together into tight balls, called pinheads Then, from these, and occasionally rising with such force that they can dislodge paving slabs, mushrooms grow up and out, an architectural triumph to rival the finest humans can offer.

It is only here, within the cells of the mushroom itself, that true sexual reproduction occurs. The two nuclei fuse, meiosis takes place, and spores are formed, which then drop away from the mushroom’s gills or pores, caught by the breeze and blown far and wide. But with their tough coats spores can lie dormant for years, weathering the harshest of conditions. For such a fragile organism, spores are an eminently sensible way of ensuring that those selfish fungal genes are passed on.

The majority of fungi, whether mushroom-producing or not, are saprophytic, that is they are nature’s recycles, feeding off dead plant and animal cells. However some are symbiotic, bonding with algae to form lichens, or together with plant roots to form complex underground networks called micorrhizae, a “wood-wide web” without which both plants and fungus would struggle to survive. Others are parasitic