Five Fun Facts about Fungi
Louise Slocombe

Five Fun Facts about Fungi

It’s autumn and fungi are appearing all over the ZEALANDIA valley. There are also fungi sprouting up in the ZEALANDIA stairwell - but in the form of Hayley May’s beautiful photographs. Her exhibition, ‘An Enchantment of Fungi’, is running until the end of June 2019. Hayley’s photographs were featured in this online photo essay a couple of years ago and she has continued to photograph fungi in the valley ever since.


Here are a few things that you may not know about fungi:

· Fungi are neither plants nor animals – they were once thought to be part of the plant kingdom, but recent studies have shown that they are more closely related to animals than plants, and they now form a separate kingdom of their own.

· Fungi are the world’s largest living organisms – what we see above ground are only the temporary fruiting bodies and most fungi exist underground as networks of mycelia. The largest living organism on Earth is thought to be a honey fungus in the Blue Mountains of Oregon which is 3.8km across and thousands of years old.

· Fungi are essential to life on Earth – most plants could not grow without the help of fungi. While some fungi cause diseases in plants and humans, fungi play an important role in the ecosystem – they are nature’s recyclers, breaking down dead plant material into minerals and gases that can be used by new plants. They also help transport food and water to plants.

· There is still a lot to learn about New Zealand fungi – we have an estimated 22,000 species of fungi but only about two thirds of these have been documented. Many species of New Zealand fungi are critically endangered – fungi are often highly specialised and the loss of a species of fungi can affect a whole network of other plants and animals and put other species at risk.

· Māori had uses for many species of fungi – most commonly for food and medicine. A species called āwheto (Ophiocordyceps robertsii) was mixed with bird fat to make ink for tā moko (traditional Māori tattoos) and another species called Te pūtawa (Laetiporus portentosus) was used for torches as it burns very slowly. Fungi also feature in whakataukī – someone who only has short bursts of energy might be called he harore rangitahi (a mushroom that only lasts a day).


Article by Louise Slocombe

Fly Agaric mushroom photo by Hayley May


References and further information:

Fleming N., The largest living thing on Earth is a humongous fungus, BBC website 

Keane B, 'Kōrero taiao – sayings from nature - Good and bad qualities', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand

New Zealand Science Teacher Forgotten Fungal Facts! 

Science learning hub Pokapū Akoranga Putaiao Conserving New Zealand’s Fungi 

Science learning hub Pokapū Akoranga Putaiao Maori knowledge and use of fungi 

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