Are Mushrooms Decomposers or Producers? Fungi Explained

The sight of a newly-formed collection of mushrooms might fill some gardeners with dread and have them running for a shovel to remove them. However, this might not always prove the best course of action.

Mushrooms are a fungus and one of nature's recyclers. Along with bacteria, fungi break down waste products from dead plants (organic material) and animals to obtain enough energy for them to reproduce.

In doing so, they return many essential nutrients to the surrounding soil. Not only is the soil richer and a more hospitable environment, but nearby plants also thrive.

Along with bacteria, mushrooms are a primary decomposer in an ecosystem.

Decomposers and Their Components

msuhrooms decomposing dead tree

A decomposer is an organism, especially a fungus, bacteria, or invertebrate that decomposes organic material.

Plants and animals die and become food for decomposers. They recycle organic matter into chemical nutrients and release them back into the soil, air, or water.

Decomposers use enzymes to break down the cells of dead plants and animals. The chemical reaction turns them into elementary substances. They include water and carbon dioxide along with simple compounds containing nitrogen, phosphates, and calcium; all of the things that a plant needs to grow

Fungi and bacteria are primary decomposers in an ecosystem. Insects such as termites, cockroaches, millipedes, and earthworms are secondary decomposers. They complete the good work of their primary counterparts.

Why Mushrooms Make Great Decomposers

The fruiting part of a mushroom that grows above ground is instantly recognizable to cooks and gardeners alike.

During a specific combination of weather and humidity, their sprouting heads will be the first time that you know that there is a magnificent recycling machine beneath your feet.

For growth, mushrooms need moisture, cloudy skies (or a good amount of shade), and soil rich in organic matter.

Beneath the ground is an impressive, microscopic root network called a Mycelium.

mycelium root network

The thread-like roots, Hyphae, penetrate deeper than other decomposers.

The slender roots entwine with those of other plants to access carbohydrates such as sucrose and glucose to facilitate the fungi's growth.

The symbiotic association between the two is called Mycorrhiza and has many benefits for both parties, including reciprocated nutritional support.

In exchange, the plant roots can access the nutrients, irons, and phosphates within the mycelium.

It is thought that around 95% of plant forms have a mycorrhiza relationship with a fungi decomposer. Some species are reliant on it for their existence.

Are they the Best Decomposers?

Mushrooms have incredible efficacy when it comes to decomposing some organic matter.

For instance, lignin, the protective material surrounding the cell wall of trees, will only respond to decomposition by fungi.

The root network penetrates the complex organic material, resulting in its break down. Other decomposers, including bacteria, only manage to penetrate outer layers.

Similarly, mushrooms encourage rapid decomposition of bark chips, rotting logs, dead leaves, and animal carcasses.

It creates usable compounds that enrich the soil and provide food for surrounding plant-life.

How Mushrooms Reproduce

As the fruit of the mushroom rears its head above ground, it disperses thousands of microscopic spores. They get thrown high in the air, catch on the wind, and come to rest in pastures.

They will slowly propagate and change into fungal growth.

Initially, the mycelium root network forms hunting for organic matter in the soil.

The fungi excrete enzymes that are the beginning of the decomposing process. The organic materials break down and settle into their constituent compounds.

The spores lay dormant until the desired conditions for growth occur: organic nutrient source, oxygen, and moisture.

Decomposers vs Producers and Consumers

Ecosystems contain a diverse selection of organisms, each tasked with a set of ecological requirements to enable successful coexistence and procreation.

Decomposers – Any living organism that cannot manufacture its food and gains its nutritional requirements from the organic carbon in the matter of dead plants or animals, known as a Heterotroph.

Producers – Using sunlight, air, or soil, producers create their food. The most recognized formula is photosynthesis, whereby green plants use the light from the sun and chlorophyll within their leaves to produce sugars.

Consumers – Any organism that obtains necessary energy by feeding on other organisms.

Final Thoughts

Mushrooms that grow on the lawn may be unsightly but take it as a compliment.

They have surfaced because the soil beneath is nutritious, fertile, and houses a well-balanced, healthy ecosystem.

Lawn mushrooms are seldom poisonous; a quick online identification check should prove this.

If you can bear to leave the mushrooms in situ, know that the surrounding plants are well-nourished and the soil is ripe for planting.

Mushrooms are decomposers that enhance the ecology and anything living within it.

Annette Marsh
For the past twenty years, Annette has allocated much of her free time towards gardening and landscaping related tasks; Planting flowers and trees, weeding, pruning, mulching, mowing, constructing ponds and various other structures, as well as growing and maintaining a vegetable garden.

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