Mushrooms, Toadstools and assorted fungi

Whenever the weather is a bit on the moist side, we can count on seeing members of that peculiar order of beings known as fungi. Whether you call them toadstools, mushrooms, or just pizza toppings these living organisms can be surprisingly eye catching or so innocuous that we miss them altogether.

For a long time scientists lumped in them in with the plant kingdom since they certainly aren’t animals and like plants stay put in one place growing out of the soil. But when DNA sequencing began maturing and a look was taken, it was revealed that these humble life-forms actually belonged in their own order separate from plants or animals.

Along with mushrooms, fungi include yeasts, molds and are the primary decomposers of organic matter. While most fungus are unobtrusive, that doesn’t mean they are small. In fact the largest known organism on earth is not the whale or the redwood tree, but the honey fungus. To understand how it achieves this distinction, it is important to realize that the mushrooms we see are actually the fruiting bodies of the fungus itself which lives below ground. Referred to as a mycelium, it forms an odd network of hyphae which looks like thread and can grow to enormous proportions all out of sight. We only become aware of them when they form the familiar looking mushrooms we see sprouting seemingly out of nowhere.

There is tantalizing fossil evidence suggesting that early in Earth’s history fungus could form huge structures that dwarfed the early land plants. While the jury is still out on whether the fossils were actually fungi, it does conjure up images of a bizarre world unlike anything we’re familiar with today. If you want to know what an alien planet might look like, just look back in Earth’s past.

Modern fungus, while not as brobdinagian as their ancestors, can often be arresting in appearance. Last summer I found a young morel just popping out of the ground.

I revisited it the next day hoping to get a better picture. However it turns out humans are not the only ones who relish morels. Something had partially devoured the unfortunate morel and by the next day it was gone altogether.

Up in the woods a few years back I found a species of bracket fungus called turkey tail mushrooms growing on a small birch log.

The log itself was only about six to eight inches in diameter so they weren’t very big but their colorful appearance made them stand out. This species of mushroom has also caught the eye of medical researchers who are studying its uses in boosting the immune systems of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.

Many species of fungus has properties which make them valuable to humans. Yeasts help bread to rise and wine to ferment. But science has recently uncovered their most vital contribution in the form of Mycorrhizal Fungi which live in symbiosis with 90 percent of vascular plants and are essential to their survival. They make it possible for plants to take in nutrients in a way similar to bacteria in our guts help us to absorb nutrients. Mycorrhizal fungi help gardens grow better and help plants to establish themselves in barren areas. If you’ve been fertilizing your garden like crazy but still can’t get things to grow well, you may very well be missing this vital link. In fact excessive fertilizing has been linked to the suppression of these fungi, compromising the long term fertility of the soil.

Preliminary tests suggest that plants grown with inoculants are more vigorous and disease resistant that plants grown without beneficial fungi. However caution is advised about obtaining inoculant as many gardening companies have jumped on the bandwagon and are offering products of dubious value. Chances are good that unless your soil is really crappy, you already have these fungi. It’s just a matter of encouraging them. A few years back I purchased inoculant for my wax beans and peas. They grew well but after reading about the above, I have gone several years without using inoculant and discovered the peas and beans grow just fine. Whatever they needed was already in the soil so I’ve saved a bit of money that way.

There are countless resources both online and in books about this subject. If you have a little garden space, experiment a bit and see what results you get. With a little help from your fungi friends of course!

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