Written By D. Yael Bernhard and Illustration © D. Yael Bernhard
In the unseen world beneath a wheat field, the soil is teeming with life. Bacteria, protozoa, and other microorganisms proliferate and interact with insects, worms, rodents, and the occasional toad. Interlaced with the roots of the young plants is a fine network of mycelia – underground filaments of fungi. Mycelia are a vital part of all ecosystems, continually branching out and interconnecting to form far-reaching networks that break down organic matter. Sometimes referred to as the “wood-wide-web,” mushroom mycelia are a constantly-evolving living structure that responds to the forces of nature, from subtle fluctuations in temperature and pressure to seasonal and climatic change.
Lacking chlorophyll, mushrooms must seek and digest food outside their intricate, web-like networks. Transparent or white in color, these ubiquitous branching threads may be mycorrhizal , living within the soil and inside the roots of plants, exchanging nutrients and increasing the plant’s absorption of essential elements such as nitrogen, copper, phosphorus, and zinc. Mycorrhizal species form links within the food chain that filter waste, translocate nutrients, sustain trees, and facilitate inter-species communication. The fungi, too, benefit from these interconnections by gaining essential sugars from plants and trees.
Other fungi are endophytic , living on a cellular level inside plant tissues and producing compounds that protect young shoots from disease; modulate enzyme activity; and regulate acids.
A third group of fungi are saprophytic – the great decomposers, without which our planet would be covered in dead plant matter. Saprophytic fungi break down organic material in wood and soil, reducing it to simpler compounds that may be absorbed by other organisms.
The fungal kingdom comprises between two and ten million species – more than the
total number of plant and animal species combined. This incredible biodiversity supports life on Earth by creating and sustaining the living soil that supports the microbial and plant kingdoms. Under the right conditions, some species fruit mushrooms – which produce microscopic spores that land on a substrate, or something the fungi likes to grow in. Spores send out hyphae which in turn connect to form mycelium. Mycelium lives year round, and seasonally fruits mushrooms. Mycelial networks can decompose stalks and even fruit on stubble or corn cobs, producing edible mushrooms such as oyster mushrooms. Mushrooms are also an important food source for insects, animals, and people.
Beneficial endophytic and mycorrhizal mushrooms may have a special role to play in agriculture by forming symbiotic relationships with cultivated crops. Certain species that are extraordinarily resistant to drought and heat are aptly called extremophiles , and may be cultivated and introduced to living plants,
strengthening their ability to adapt to harsh conditions. One endophyte, Piriformospora indica, coexists with many grasses, as well as wheat, barley, maize, cabbage, clover, and canola-rich rapeseed – and may be cultivated to promote growth and decrease the need for fertilizers and pesticides. Within the human body, mushrooms have similarly adaptogenic benefits. Medicinal mushroom extracts, long renowned in Asia, hold out hope for healing chronic ailments –
without toxic side effects, and often in concert with conventional treatments. Antibiotics and statins are derived from fungi, along with numerous other pharmaceutical medicines. The wonders of mushrooms also manifest in a bounty of culinary delights and nutritional riches. What new discoveries will be made as we learn to tap the extraordinary potential of fungi?
Every step you take in an untilled field or forest makes contact with hundreds of miles of mycelia; and every cubic inch of air contains thousands of fungal spores, which enter our bodies with each breath we take. That silent, living network in the earth beneath your feet just might have the power to restore harmony to our environment, our bodies, and even our minds.
D. Yael Bernhard is an author and illustrator (http://dyaelbernhard.com), herbal enthusiast, mushroom lover, and part of the Catskill Fungi crew. Catskill Fungi is focused on education and medicinal mushrooms. For a list of our products and programs, visit CatskillFungi.com.
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Stametz, Paul, Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, Ten Speed Press, 2005.
Rogers, Robert, The Fungal Pharmacy: The Complete Guide to Medicinal Mushrooms & Lichens of North America, North Atlantic Books, 2011.Powell, Martin, Medicinal Mushrooms: The Clinical Guide, Mycology Press, 2nd Edition, 2014.
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