Mushrooms are incredibly unique compared with the animal and plant kingdoms.
Part of their own kingdom, fungi form an intrinsic mycorrhizal network that weaves throughout the earth’s crust and transports beneficial bacteria and nutrients to plants, trees and animals that enables nature to connect, communicate and thrive.
Being neither an animal nor plant, fungi species have a completely unique structure and one that fits into our own DNA and cell biology. Our own immune cells having specific fungal receptors conveying their place in immune health and longevity.
This is one of the most extraordinary facts about mushrooms; evidence suggests human biology has evolved to have specific receptors only activated or "switched on" by the consumption of mushrooms.
The anatomy of a mushroom is a fascinating subject that we can learn and experience each part of the mushroom – the mushroom stem or stalk, the mushroom cap, fruiting body, the ring, mushroom mycelium network and mushroom spores.
Read on as we discuss all parts of a mushroom and how their unique benefits support human health and the planet.
Table of Contents
The anatomy of a mushroom explained
Mushrooms have been consumed as a medicine and longevity foods since ancient times.
From the Greek physician Hippocrates (the Father of Modern Medicine), who recorded mushrooms as potent anti-inflammatory foods, to the ancient Chinese texts dating back 5000-year-old that noted the use of mushrooms for longevity, wellbeing and spiritual growth.
In folk medicine, throughout Europe, mushrooms were consumed as both a source of nutrition and medicine (1).
The anatomy of a mushroom has intrigued humans since the dawn of man, with their peculiar shape, different variations, structure and potent health effects on the human body.
Through consuming mushrooms whether culinary mushrooms in our diet regularly, or medicinal mushrooms on a daily basis, mushroom health benefits shine through and truly make them a real superfood.
Nutritionally, mushrooms offer a plethora of amino acids; the building blocks of protein required for healthy mood, muscle growth, immune health and DNA replication.
Mushrooms are rich in chitin and other unique polysaccharides, called beta-glucans, that yield gut health benefits and immunomodulating properties. Mushrooms also contain numerous vitamins and minerals that support healthy cell function and overall well being.
Learning mushroom anatomy is an interesting topic to explore and educate ourselves about the unique properties and type of mushrooms.
The anatomy of a mushroom will help you understand why fungi are such an integral part of a healthy diet, wellbeing and connection to the planet.
What is a spore?
Just like plants and trees require seeds to germinate in the earth's soil to grow, spores are comparable to the seeds of fungi.
Mushroom spores are recognised as the pre-baby stage of a mushroom’s life cycle.
Every spore is asexual in nature meaning they’re all the same, unlike what can occur in plant seeds, there are no male or female spores.
Spores are the reproductive unit of the mushroom life cycle.
Spores are released from the gills and pores of mushrooms (the fleshy part under the cap) by the trillions each day, innocently floating in the air seeking its most ideal environment and the right conditions to germinate.
Spores contain all the necessary materials to form a new fungus type.
Stems & Caps
When mushroom spores germinate, they form a primordial or young mushroom in which the stem and cap begin to form.
This is also known as the button stage. When mushrooms are about half way in development, they begin to "sprout" above ground. During the final maturation phase of development, the fungus forms its fruiting body.
The fruit bodies are the stem and cap of a mushroom. This is what we recognise a mushroom to be in its above ground form.
For example, when you buy button mushrooms from your local grocery store or farmers market, this is the fruiting body of Agaricus bisporus sp.
The typical formation of a mushroom is semi-spherical cap with gills underneath and a straight type of stalk.
Certain fungi species have very unique stems and caps. Lion’s Mane mushroom (Hericium erinaceus) is one such example with its “bearded tooth” looking cap. And white pigment that resembles lots of descending icicles or as its aptly name suggests– a lion’s mane.
Or Turkey Tail’s cap looks like repeating units or coral or petals, making it very unique and easy to identify.
Gills, Pores and More
Mushroom scales are hard pigmented plates that cover the mushroom and act as a protective unit.
Mushroom scales are what contribute to fungi having spots and are useful in identifying different fungi species in the wild.
Lion's Mane Mushroom (Hericium erinaceus)
- Gills and Pores
Mushroom gills, or lamellae, are the part of the mushroom at which spores are produced – the reproductive part of the mushroom. Gills can appear as teeth or tubes and exist on the underneath side of the mushroom cap.
A perfect example of unique gills is Lion’s Mane mushroom. The gills of Hericium erinaceus appear as “teeth” and resemble the mane of a lion. It’s also known as the “pom pom” mushroom.
Some mushroom species have spores – instead of appearing as elongated gills, they’re small holes underneath the cap – looking like a sponge of sorts.
Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum) and Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor) are two examples of mushrooms that have pores instead of gills.
- The Ring
The ring anatomy of a mushroom is a membrane that encases part of the stem underneath the fruiting body.
The health benefits of Mushroom consumption
- Low Calories
Mushrooms – whether culinary mushrooms or medicinal mushrooms are very low in calories, and instead, contribute a hefty dose of micronutrients and amino acids. Being rich in potassium, phosphorous, copper and selenium, mushrooms are a healthy and nutritious addition to any diet.
- Rich in Antioxidants, Protein and Fibre
Antioxidants are a very important for a healthy diet and fortunately, mushrooms are an exceptional source of unique antioxidants.
Specifically, Chaga, Reishi, Lion’s Mane, Cordyceps, Turkey Tail and Maitake mushroom are all rich in antioxidant compounds that protect DNA, support cardiovascular function, longevity and other anti-ageing health benefits.
Mushrooms are also rich in amino acids – the building blocks of protein.
Protein is so much more than just for muscle synthesis and weight loss. Protein is required for enzyme formation, our immune system, collagen formation, liver detoxification and blood formation.
Medicinal mushrooms are rich in essential amino acids, specifically alanine, aspartic acid and glutamic acid.
Fibre is key in healthy cholesterol levels, detoxification and gut health.
Mushrooms are unique in their fibre content due to their fungal wall being made up of chitin. This polysaccharide compound acts as an insoluble fibre and helps support gut health, improve microbial diversity and healthy blood markers.
- Great Source of Selenium
Selenium is a key mineral in thyroid health, metabolism, glutathione production and acts as an antioxidant mineral. Mushrooms are a rich dietary source of selenium and can help support healthy skin and cellular health.
- Mushrooms may mitigate the risk of health conditions including heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's
Mushrooms have been shown through numerous scientific studies to support a healthy cardiovascular system.
Medicinal mushrooms such as Reishi, Maitake and Lion’s Mane may all help reduce the risk of heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s disease (2, 3, 4).
Commonly Asked Questions
What is the top of a mushroom called?
The top of a mushroom is called the fruiting body. The mushroom cap and stem are typically the above ground parts of a mushroom that we see.
What is the mushroom stalk?
The mushroom stalk is a key part of the mushroom anatomy. The stem is the major supporting feature for the mushroom fruit bodies and mushroom cap.
What is mycelium?
Mushroom mycelium is the underground branching colony parts of a mushroom. The mycelium is formed when two spores come together and form a long branched tubular structure known as hyphae. When multiple compatible hyphae grow, they fuse together to form the mushroom mycelium web.
Hyphae absorb nutrients from the soil and transport those nutrients to other parts of a mushroom.
The formation of mushroom mycelium enables fungus and plants to connect and send and receive nutrients from one another in a mutually beneficial exchange for better chance of survival in the environment.
What part of fungal anatomy is the mushroom cap?
The mushroom cap is the top part of the fruiting body in which high quality medicinal mushroom products use for extraction. The fruiting body and mushroom cap are the main medicinal parts of mushroom anatomy.
To summarise, mushroom anatomy is very unique and fascinating. Every part of the mushroom serves an important purpose that benefits human health and supports the environment.
The fruiting body is the above ground part of the mushroom and we often identify as a mushroom.
The fruit bodies is also what humans mostly consume because it offers the most concentrated nutrients and health benefits.
Also, any toxicity in mushrooms are also concentrated in its fruiting body.
It's important to note that mushrooms act like sponges in the wild. This makes fungi incredibly useful and efficient in cleaning up and recycling the environment.
For that reason, always choose to buy certified organic mushrooms because it guarantees you're consuming mushrooms that have been sourced from an clean environment.
Mushroom mycelium is the underground fungal network that is integral to the Earth’s ecosystem and survival. Mushroom anatomy also contains gills, scales and spores which enable the mushroom life cycle to occur.
- Medicinal Mushrooms: Ancient Remedies Meet Modern Science - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4684114/
- Isokauppila, Tero. Healing Mushrooms. Prentice Hall Press
- Powell, Martin. Medicinal Mushrooms - A Clinical Guide
- Adaptogens: Herbs for Strength, Stamina, and Stress Relief. Book by David Winston and Steven Maimes
Written by Eliza Hedley
Eliza Hedley is a health, mindset and abundance enthusiast obsessed with helping millennial's experience living at a higher level.
Eliza's relaxed new age approach and understanding of nutrition and wellness sees her empowering and coaching individuals to understand that their health is the ultimate asset. Upon experiencing first hand the power and place of tonic herbalism and medicinal mushrooms in everyday life, Eliza’s become an adaptogen fangirl and feels their utilisation in today’s world is essential for abundance and wellbeing.