Toadstools are mushrooms -- the cap and stalk reproductive structure of certain types of fungi. Toadstools are the most identifiable part of the fungus body. These fungi are often decomposers that grow out of decaying tree trunks that have fallen to the ground. Some are beneficial because they provide additional nutrients to the trees as symbionts, but other types of toadstool fungi are parasites and cause tree disease.
The Kingdom Fungi includes diverse forms; the toadstool types are known as Basidiomycetes. Most of the Basidiomycete structure, called mycelium, grows below ground or inside the tree trunk; it can encompass a large amount of space but is not often seen. The mycelium consists of filaments called hyphae that absorb nutrients and produce the toadstool structures, when needed, to reproduce by spores. Toadstool fungi act as decomposers, parasites and/or symbionts.
Decomposers, also known as saprophytes such as toadstool fungi, release nutrients from dead organisms back into the system. Fungal decomposers do not have a mouth to take in food as worm decomposers do. Instead, they break down dead matter into smaller chemicals by secreting enzymes from their hyphae into the organic matter around them. These enzymes digest the food outside of the fungus body, and the fungal hyphae absorb the released nutrients.
Symbiosis is the process of one organism supplying nutrients to another. Toadstool fungi are symbionts that wrap hyphae around or invade the roots of their host, supplying it with extra nutrients such as nitrogen derived from dead organic matter the plant could not break down for itself. The plant host supplies the toadstool fungus with sugars. Toadstool fungi are not plants, do not photosynthesise and so cannot make their own food.
Toadstool fungi can sometimes attack living trees. Parasitic toadstool fungi spores enter a tree in damaged or cracked bark or roots, and they absorb plant nutrients. Armillaria is a toadstool fungus that decays old tree stumps but sends out filaments many feet from the stump that invade roots of living apple trees. Marasmiellus toadstools pop up in coconut palm tree groves and attack palm roots. The toadstool fungus Marasmius rots the roots of banana trees.
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