Fungi: A not-quite-plant, not-quite-animal so complex, it commands its own Kingdom in the world of biology.
But like any Game of Thrones fan knows, running a kingdom can get pretty messy – and leave plenty of people clamoring for the crown.
Still, the world of mushrooms is a little less competitive than the world of George R.R. Martin: While there are over 14,000 mushroom subjects in the kingdom, there are only four major mushroom houses vying to sit the throne.
But what the non-plant non-animals may lack in cut-throat politics, they more than make up for in creativity.
That’s because, unlike plants and animals, mushrooms don’t have the all-important compound chlorophyll, which so helpfully allows members of those other biological kingdoms to convert sunlight into energy. So in order to grow, reproduce and even live at all, mushrooms must turn to other means.
And their preferred strategy for extracting vitamins, minerals and energy in the absence of light-based methods is what scientists use to classify which of the four main categories mushrooms belong to.
Even George R.R. Martin couldn’t think of so many ways to power such strange creatures.
The four different types of mushrooms include:
As their name implies, these mushrooms feed through the classic parasitic model: Siphoning vital vitamins and nutrients from a living host.
Like all fungi, parasitic mushrooms get their start as spores, but when those spores land on an unsuspecting host, that’s when they really begin to blossom. It’s great news for the mushroom, but not so much for the poor host.
As they continue to take nutrients from whichever creature they’ve come across, the parasitic mushroom will grow into its host’s body, slowly replacing those creature’s cells and tissues with its own. In many cases, the hosts of these mushrooms die – or at the very least, get very sick.
Common hosts include both plants and animals, with parasitic mushrooms living off of everything from tree bark to insect larvae.
While their preferred way of feeding may sound less-than-appealing, many types of parasitic mushrooms are actually very in-demand, for both their taste and extraordinary health benefits.
Some of the most famous types of parasitic mushrooms include:
A bit more of a compassionate kind than the parasite mushroom, the saprotrophic mushroom at least waits until its host is already in the early stages of death before taking over.
In the animal kingdom, these types of mushrooms would most likely be compared to a scavenger, who doesn’t proactively hunt for their food as much as live off of scraps of food that’s already been “taken care of.” They’re considered vital players in any ecosystem, clearing away dead or dying plants to make way—and provide rich, fertilized soil—for the next generation.
Saprotrophic mushrooms feed almost entirely on trees, with their spores releasing acids and enzymes that can break down the materials inside these old plants, making them easily absorbable by and for the mushroom.
But, along with those life-giving sources, these mushrooms also seem to absorb plenty of flavor – and health benefits of their own.
Indeed, most of the most famous and in-demand types of mushrooms in the world are saprotrophic, including:
These fascinating creatures put a good witch-spin on their parasitic cousins.
Mycorrhizal mushrooms operate much like parasitic mushrooms in that they require a living (plant) host to feed off. But rather than replacing their host-plant’s tissues with their own as they grow, these types of mushrooms extend into the ground, wrapping around or weaving into the very same root system that supports their host.
And in this case, two systems are better than the one.
Mycorrhizal mushrooms have actually been found to improve the health of their hosts through these root-merging practices, forging a truly symbiotic relationship by which the mushrooms exchange moisture, phosphorous and other nutrients for vital sugars provided by the trees.
And together, both the mushrooms and the trees they merge with have been found to grow bigger, stronger and faster through the relationship.
Even as mycorrhizal mushrooms pay it forward in the plant world, they attract humans who would pay dearly to have them on a plate. These represent some of the world’s most highly-prized—and exorbitantly expensive—types of mushrooms, including:
Finally, we arrive at the kingdom’s most mysterious members of all. (And our personal bet on Mushroom House most likely to take the Iron Throne.)
Endrophytic fungi combine the traits of both parasitic and mycorrhizal mushrooms. They both invade a host plant’s body, and take over its tissue, but also help increase the health of their host by providing hydration and some nutrients as well as protection from disease.
Still, scientists have found that some endrophytic fungi can be cultivated and don’t seem to need a host at all. And many times, endrophytic fungi don’t even produce mushrooms, keeping them almost impossible to see with the naked eye.
We’re still learning about these strange creatures and how they get along in the world.
But no matter which type of mushroom you bend the knee for, we think you’re in pretty good – and, usually, pretty tasty – hands.