Mushrooms and Other Fungi

Photo of mushrooms.
Mushrooms hike in the park, appearing only after a rain.

NPS/Kristin Dorman-Johnson

Dry and sunny as deserts are, they are almost never without fungi. It seems odd because we mostly hear about forest mushrooms that grow in lush, moist, dark areas. Wherever they grow, they are essential parts of all ecosystems, including the desert.

First, it’s important to realize that fungi are not plants. They do not have chlorophyll, the pigment needed for photosynthesis. Fungi cannot capture sunlight and manufacture the carbon compounds needed for survival.

Second, we should note that mushrooms are really just the above-ground visible structures of many (but not all) types of fungi. They are a mechanism for dispersing the spores with which fungi reproduce and spread. The bulk of fungal activity goes on at a microscopic level, in the hyphae, which are very long structures that are a single cell wide.

One very important type of fungus is ectomycorrhizae (which means external root fungi). These fungi wrap themselves around the tiny root tips and engage in a symbiotic relationship with most plants on earth—scientists say 80 to 95 percent of plants. They take up mineral nutrients from the soil and exchange them with plants for photosynthetically fixed carbon, thereby benefiting the plants and the fungi. Mycoorhizal fungi are therefore very important, constituting a major energy flow pathway in terrestrial ecosystems—including deserts.

The park does have mushrooms—they pop up from time to time among the grasses after there has been a good wetting rain.

Last updated: December 17, 2017

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