Gardening: A Fungus Among Us

By Betty Haris

In the Blue Mountains of Oregon lives the largest single living organism on earth. It covers over 3 square miles of land but is 1 cell thick but eats everything it touches. It girdles trees and prevents water and nutrients from moving up and down the trees. DNA testing confirms that it is one organism. Based on its rate of growth the age is estimated to be between 2000 and 8000 yrs old. Its scientific name is Armillaria. And its common name is honey mushroom which is quite safely edible and also is called shoestring fungus.

This also exits in Michigan and Germany but the largest one discovered so far is this one in Oregon. It has been studied for over 40 yrs and the methods to remove it have been too expensive for lumber companies to do it because every little string of it has to be removed from the soil. The department of Natural Resources are experimenting with trees which may be able to live with the fungus instead.

Its main purpose seems to be recycling of trees for its own benefit. While this helps birds and other wildlife it does destroy a lot of trees. And it’s pretty obvious that if one wanted to grow trees in this area it would have to be a variety that the fungus doesn’t eat. Since evidence has been shown that fungi can be trained to live on just one food source it could be hard to find one this fungus couldn’t adapt to eating to survive.

It seems that fungi are totally focused on surviving (go figure) and take a long view of what survival means. They are extremely efficient in detoxifying the world around them. Would that we were that concerned about detoxifying the rest of the world.

On the farm we never mulched anything so when I started using wood mulch here I noticed some odd looking yellow fungus that was “creepy” to my human mind. Later I learned that this was in fact an important organism to help break down organize matter. Now I find that fungi help trees talk to each other and that some trees end up being parent or nurse trees and they send messages and food to seedlings of their own species but not others. Are you not amazed yet?

There are many places we don’t want fungi, like in your mouth which is called thrush (a recent 2 week treatment for H. Pylori left me with a bad case of it) or in your eyes, etc. In our bodies this needs to be treated. But there are many places that we do need fungi because of the benefits they provide. Besides some of them being edible like mushrooms they provide other important services to planet life.

We seem to suffer from microphobia – an irrational fear of fungi. As a result we end up destroying an organism that can actually save plant and animal life. It is time to understand our environment better. So how do fungi work?

Recently I brought this up to a group that is highly interested in food and farming, gardening, etc. and they gave me a blank look when I mentioned mycorrhizae. That’s when it occurred to me that we humans have been mostly ignorant of fungi in relation to plants and other life on the planet.

Plants and fungi do not have mouths and stomachs like most other species so to survive they do what they do best which is absorb nutrients and water from the soil and swap it to plants for food (sugars made from plants photosynthesis). So these mushrooms/fungi create great massive underground networks called hyphae which attach to plant roots and then put out tiny hair like filaments that reach far into the soil increasing the surface area of plant roots up to a thousand times. These mycorrhizal filaments produce compounds that improve soil structure and make it more porous. These same mycorrhizae decrease soil-borne pathogens and protect plants from root disease. These fungi are not fertilizers even though they serve the purpose of increasing growth and tolerance for drought and disease.

Mycorrhizae help plants by breaking down hard-to-reach nutrients in the soil and assisting with water retention (remember those water issues we’re concerned about?) Mycorrhizal fungi excrete unique enzymes and antibiotics that support plant health offering increased disease resistance. Because the mycorrhizae support plant health, they are most effective as preventative treatments with regard to disease organisms.

In our attempts to grow things we can over-water, over-fertilize and use too many fungicides which can eliminate mycorrhizae usefulness or even kill the fungi. As microbiologists and others learn more about these organisms it has become possible to buy mycorrhizae from nurseries and landscapers. Often these mycorrhizal fungi are mixed with other beneficial organic matter. As far as learning about how to grow more with less inputs we are way behind. What we know so far is that most commercial fertilizers kill many of the soil critters. What happens if we don’t figure out in time which are the most important players and find a way to preserve them? What can we do now before we learn all we need to know?

While we are learning we need to help build the right fungi in our garden soils so we can grow more food under changing circumstances. Evidence shows fungi help clean up pollution, which we humans seem to excel at creating. Our actions of tilling or excavating, covering the soil with pavement, adding chemical soil fumigation or fungicides and applying high phosphorus fertilizers is detrimental to us and the planet. If we just figured out how to use mycorrhizae we’d not need to use much fertilizer at all. Imagine what we’d save in money along with significantly less pollution.

Life on earth for humans was improved when early people learned to create fire but it really stepped up when they learned to carry fire with them from place to place in a mushroom called Amadou. Mushrooms are trail followers and the Amadou spread along trails made by animals and humans than in the rest of the forest. The same thing happens with most all fungi and or mushrooms. It seems that as humans and animals travel about we shed fungi. And we thought we’d bathed well before starting that hike.

Plants cannot exist without fungi. There are fungi that are parasitic meaning they exist on a host and eat it as they break down materials in plants. Some act as shields that protect plants such as trees, some do not break down dead trees but live in the dead matter when other fungi have broken it down.

We are more closely related to fungi than to any other life on this planet so when someone says you are a monkey’s uncle you can tell them that you’re mostly fungi – don’t tell them about the pond scum until you get to know them better.

Fungi eat rocks to get to the minerals in them. We live on this tiny rock (tiny compared to the universe) covered with a thin layer of soil that harbors fungi which sweat water as it eats rocks to get at minerals it needs and then shares with plants that use photosynthesis to make sugars that it trades with the fungi.
Mushrooms are the spore (seed) producing part of a fungus. Like all living things mushrooms can have many different shapes and colors depending on the variety. Some mushrooms are very edible and some are poisonous or simply just don’t taste good.
So how do we use mycorrhizae where we live? The research done by Paul Stamets and others show that seeds that are sprouted in the presence of mycorrhizae grow much larger faster and end up with significantly larger root system which then produces larger plants and trees, etc. They wondered how hemlock trees growing around the base of massive old growth trees could get enough sunlight to grow. So they took some of them to a greenhouse and gave them the same amount of light and the trees died relatively quickly. Their work showed that other trees of other species outside the old growth area were sending nutrients via mycorrhizae through the soil. Fungi take apart the residue of life and create soil. Sounds sorta like neighbors helping each other doesn’t it?

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