This section is from the book "A Library Of Wonders And Curiosities Found In Nature And Art, Science And Literature", by I. Platt. Also available from Amazon: A library of wonders and curiosities.
If to this lower planet we advert,
Seat of our birth and nurture, proofs abound
Of infinite contrivance, matchless skill.
Whether the site or figure we regard,
Or distribution of the various parts
Perfective of the system, strokes appear
Too exquisite for bungling- chance to hit. Bally.
By fungus, we mean the mushroom tribe. The ancients called them the children of the earth, to indicate the obscurity of their origin. The moderns have likewise been at a loss in what rank to place them; some referring them to the animal, some to the vegetable, and others to the mineral kingdom. Messrs. Wilck and Minchausen, have not scrupled to rank these bodies among animal productions; because, when fragments of them or their seeds were macerated in water, these gentlemen perceived a quantity of animalcules discharged, which they supposed capable of being changed into the same substance. It was an ancient opinion, that beef could product bees; but it was reserved for Messrs. Wilck and Minchausen, to suppose that bees could produce beef. The former asserts, that fungi consist of innumerable cavities, each inhabited by a polype ; and he does not hesitate to ascribe the formation of them to their inhabitants, in the same way as it has been said that the coral, the lichen, and the mucor, were formed. Hed-wig has lately shown how ill-founded this opinion is with respect to the lichen ; and M. Durande has demonstrated its falsity with regard to the corallines.
"Indeed, (says M. Bonnet, speaking of the animality of fungi,) nothing but the rage for paradox could induce any one to publish such a fable ; and I regret that posterity will be able to reproach our times with it. Observation and experiment should enable us to overcome the prejudices of modern philosophy, now that those of the ancient have disappeared and are forgotten." It cannot be denied, that the mushroom is one of the most perishable of all plants, and it is therefore the most favourable for the generation of insects. Considering the quickness of its growth, it must be furnished with the power of copious absorption ; the extremity of its vessels must be more dilated than in other plants. Its root seems, in many cases, to be merely intended for its support; for some species grow upon stones, or moveable sand, from which it is impossible they can draw much nourishment. We must therefore suppose, that it is chiefly by the stalk that they absorb. These stalks grow in a moist and tainted air, in which float multitudes of eggs, so small, that the very insects they produce are with difficulty seen by the microscope. These eggs may be compared to the particles of the byssus, 100,000 of which, as M. Gleditsch says, are not equal to one-fourth of a grain.
May we not suppose that a quantity of such eggs are absorbed by the vessels of the fungus, and that they remain there without any change, till the plant begins to decay? Besides, the eggs may be only deposited on the surface of the plant, or they may exist in water, into which they are thrown for examination. Do not we see that such eggs, dispersed through the air, are hatched in vinegar, in paste, etc. and wherever they find a convenient nidus for their development? Can it be surprising, then, that the corruption of the mushroom should make the water capable of disclosing certain beings that are really foreign to both? It is not more easy to acquiesce in the opinions of those naturalists who place the fungi in the mineral kingdom, because they are found growing on porous stones, thence called lapides fungarii; which, however, must be covered with a little earth, and be watered with tepid water, in order to favour the growth. Such mushrooms are no more the produce of the stone, than the lichen is of the rock to which it adheres, or the moss, of the tree on which it is found.
We have only to observe the growth of mushrooms, to be convinced that this happens by development, and not by addition or combination of parts, as in minerals. The opinion of Boccone, who attributed them to an unctuous matter performing the function of seed, and acquiring extension by apposition of similar parts; and that of Morison, who conceived that they grew spontaneously out of the earth by a certain mixture of salt and sulphur, joined with oils from the dung of quadrupeds; have now no longer any adherents. Fungi are produced, they live, they grow by development; they are exposed to those vicissitudes natural to the different periods of life which characterize living substances; they perish and die; they extract, from the extremity of their vessels, the juices with which they are nourished; they elaborate and assimilate them to their own substance: they are, therefore, organized and living beings, and consequently belong to the vegetable kingdom.
But whether they are real plants, or only the production of plants, is still a matter in dispute with the ablest naturalists. Some ancient authors have pretended to discover the seed of mushrooms; but the opinion was never generally received. Petronius, when he is laughing at the ridiculous magnificence of his hero Trimalcio, relates, that he had written to the Indies for the seed of morelle. These productions were generally attributed to the superfluous humidity of rotten wood, or other putrid substances. The opinion took its rise from observing that they grew most copiously in rainy weather. Such was the opinion of Trajus, king of Bauhin, and even of Columna, who, talking of the peziza, says, that its substance was more solid and harder, because it did not originate from rotten wood, but from the pituita of the earth. It is not surprising, that, in times when the want of experiment and observation made people believe that insects could be generated by putrefaction, we should find the opinion general, that fungi owed their origin to the putrescence of bodies, or to a viscous humour analogous to putridity Malpighi could not satisfy himself as to the existence of seeds, which other botanists have pretended to discover. He only says, that these plants must have them, or that they perpetuate themselves, and shoot by fragments. Micheli, among the moderns, appears to have employed himself most successfully on this subject. He imagined, that he not only saw the seeds, but even the stamina, as well as the little transparent bodies destined to favour the dissemination and fecundation of these seeds Before this author, Lister thought he perceived seeds in the Fungus perosus crassus magnus of John Bauhin: the little round bodies that are found in the pezizae and belvellae, at that time, passed for seeds; which did not appear at all probable to Marsigli, considering that the eye, when assisted with the very best microscopes, could perceive nothing similar in much larger fungi. Indeed, these bodies may be the capsules or covers of the seeds, if they are not the seeds themselves. However this may be, Marsigli, observing that fungi were often without roots or branches, and that they wanted flowers and seeds, the means which nature employs for the production of perfect plants, thought himself warranted in doubting whether these beings could be ranked in the number of vegetables. The doubts of Marsigli prompted him to observe the formation of fungi. Their matrix he called situs: he imagined they grew in places where they met with an unctuous matter, composed of oil mixed with nitrous salt, which, by fermentation, produced heat and moisture, and insinuated itself between the fibres of wood; that is, he imagined them the production of a viscous and putrescent humour. Lancisi, in like manner, considered fungi as owing their existence to the putrefaction of vegetables, and supposed them a disease in the plants; but he imagined "that the fibres of the trees were necessary to their production," as is the case in the formation of galls; and compared them to the warts and other excrescences of the human body. He added, that such fungous vegetable tumors must necessarily assume various forms and figures, from the fluids which distend the tubes and vessels relaxed by putrescence, from the ductility of the fibres and their direction, and from the action of the air. This opinion has been refuted by the celebrated naturalist M. de Jussieu, in the Memoirs of the Academy of Sciences for 1728. He maintains, that the fungi have a great analogy with the lichen, which is allowed to be a vegetable; that, like the lichen, they are divested of stalks, branches, and leaves; that, like it, they grow and are nourished upon the trunks of trees, on pieces of rotten wood, and on all sorts of putrid vegetables; that they resemble the lichen too in the rapidity of their growth, and the facility with which many of them may be dried, and restored to their former figure upon being immersed in water; and lastly, that there is a great similiarity in the manner in which their seeds are produced. He affirms, that only the warts and excrescences which grow on animal bodies, and the knots and other tumors that are to be found on trees, can be compared with each other; for they are composed equally of the solid and liquid substance of the plant or animal on which they grow; whereas, the matter of the fungi is not only quite distinct from that of the plants on which they are found, but often entirely similar to the substance of those that spring immediately from the earth.