Estimates range from 800 to 2,000 species of fungi. However, not to put to fine a point on it, a mushroom is not actually a fungus in much the same way that an apple is not an apple tree. Mushrooms are actually the fruiting bodies of fungi, which grow in extensive networks in the ground, rotting log or other nutrient rich medium. To call a mushroom a fruit, though, is also not entirely accurate. Mushrooms and fungi have proven so difficult to categorize that a growing number of scientists hardly consider them part of the plant kingdom at all.
The visible part of a fungus;the mushroom;is only the tip of a very interesting iceberg. Beneath the surface may grow a fungal system as extensive and old as the most ancient of trees. Like trees, fungi often grow in rings, which expand each year. The visible representation of this is what is called a "fairy ring". A fairy ring is a ring of mushrooms growing out of the ground that represents the outer boundary of the subterranean fungus. The largest fairy rings are more than 600 ft in diameter putting those fungal systems at an age five to seven centuries old.
For all we've learned about them, less is known about fungi and their ecological role than that of plants and animals even though they play a key role in the forest community. Fungi decompose organic material releasing nutrients into the ecosystem and often have hidden connections to the plants around them. More than 90 percent of vascular plants form underground links with fungi called mycorrhizae. This symbiotic exchange benefits both plant and fungus in germination and nutrient gathering.
Their prevalence, symbiotic links with nearly every species of plant and sensitivity to air quality make fungi of great ecological importance. Accordingly, the park has developed a photographic inventory of fungi to better monitor them within the park.
Note: Mushroom collecting is prohibited within North Cascades National Park Service Complex. Check at ranger stations for more information.