Mycology is the study of fungus. Mycophilia is the love of it.
Infamous fungi. Mysterious, discrete, misunderstood. One of the six kingdoms of life on this planet, Fungi are not plants at all. Fungi are Plants’ eccentric great aunt. The one who reads Plants’ tea leaves and sends Plants cryptic postcards from her world travels. Plants hopes Great Aunt Fungi will leave her her collection of costume jewellery and the motor bike side car in her will. Today’s mushrooms are more closely related to the vampire bat, octopus, firefly or a murmur of starlings than they are to a tulip or a zucchini. Over a billion years ago fungi were the first life to creep out of the oceans to live on land. Several million years later plants followed. Several hundred million years later the animal ancestral line diverged from that of fungi, that is to say that we evolved from fungi. Infamous fungi. Mycelium is the long white threads that are inconspicuously present almost everywhere. It grows unseen underground, inside living trees or dead wood, in dung and in living or dead creatures. It eats by digesting food outside of its body and does not contain chlorophyll, or absorb energy from light. It does not need light at all. It does however need water. It reproduces by releasing spores from its fruit: mushrooms. Since dark places are more humid than sunny places it is common to find a mushroom in a dark place just after rain.
If no one picked the tidy button mushroom or Criminy you find in grocery stores, it’s veil would fall, the cap would open and it would grow up to be a Portobello. They are the same species at different stages of life and are the unassuming favorite mushroom of western agriculture. Under the cap of the button mushroom are gills, from where its spores are released, but not all mushrooms have gills. Some have tubes, some have teeth. Some are branched like coral, some are hard, long living shelves on tree trunks, some are tiny, delicate and ephemeral and some are squishy like jelly. Some mushrooms have eyelashes or shoot cannon balls. Some mushrooms are shaped like stars, or eggs, or cages and they come in every color. That button mushroom is just one of an estimated 5 million fungal species of which only about 100 000 have been studied, all with different habits and roles in the environment and different uses to man.
The inhabitants of earth are diverse and live amongst each other, inside each other and on top of each other surviving by an unfathomable web of intricate relationships. Not a balance but a constantly changing struggle between living organisms competing for food, water, shelter and survival. The result is not a harmony but a cacophony of continued life, each species influencing the survival of many others. Each playing a role in the eco system.
Fungi can digest not only plant matter but diesel fuel, plastic and rock. Being able to break down materials that most organisms cannot makes them very important decomposers. They recycle leaf litter and other dead material producing soil. They are responsible for holding the soil together, protecting it against erosion, making a solid place for plants to live and redistributing nutrients from the dead to the living. (check myco tarot introduction about this)
Squirrels and chipmunks dry mushrooms in trees for later use. Many insects farm them. Dutch elm disease is caused by one of three species of fungus that is farmed by elm bark beetles. The beetles inoculate the trees with the fungus because the fungus digests the wood. The beetles then eat the fungus and benefit from the nutrients from the wood.
Termitomyces is a mushroom that was domesticated by termites over 30 million years ago. The termites farm the fungus inside their mounds and feed on the mycelium. Sometimes termite’s mycelial farm chambers are abandoned and the mycelium goes to fruit into some of the largest mushrooms known to man which are collected and served as a delicacy.
The oyster mushroom, a common edible found in most grocery stores is carnivorous. The mycelium forms tiny lassos with which it wrangles nematodes to digest. The Cordyceps mushroom is a parasite that controls its insect host’s behavior. The spores are inhaled and the fungus grows inside the living host. There are thousands of cordyceps species who each attack a different insect species. The Ophiocordyceps unilateralis infects the carpenter ant causing it to behave irrationally until, always at noon, it attaches itself to the underside of a leaf and dies. At sunset, now in a prime location for fruiting, a mushroom erupts from its head, dropping spores down and infecting new ants, perpetuating the cycle. Healthy ants know the symptoms of a cordyceps infection, recognize the danger and banish infected ants as far from the colony as possible. Winter Worm / Summer Grass is the Chinese name for the caterpillar mushroom, Ophiocordyceps sinensis because it appears to be both an animal and a plant. It’s this cordyceps that attacks ghost moth caterpillars and is used medicinally to strengthen the immune system and increase endurance.
Some toads use mushrooms as a hunter’s blind, waiting for insects that are attracted to the spores. Slugs are also seen on the caps of mushrooms munching away. The image of a mushroom as a stool for a little animal is common in fairy tales but it’s hard to know where the term toad stool, the name given to all inedible or poisonous mushrooms, actually came from as Todesstuhl translates from German to death’s chair.
Although more than just a taste is needed to have a serious effect, death by mushroom poisoning is particularly long and unpleasant, slowly shutting down vital organs over weeks. There is no antidote for some of the most commonly ingested poisonous mushrooms. Of the 100 000 known species of mushrooms 20% are poisonous and only 1% are deadly. Still, mushroom poisoning (mycetism) happens after foragers misidentify a poisonous species as an edible one. According to sutra the Buddha’s last meal was sukara-maddava. It’s suspected to be a misidentified poisonous mushroom that killed him. The Caesar mushroom is an edible mushroom that was loved by Roman Emperors and was a favorite of Claudius, who is rumored to have been murdered by his wife with poisonous mushrooms, his Caesar mushrooms replaced by a similar amanita, the Death Cap. The common names of some dangerous mushrooms give warning to their effects: sweet smelling poison pie, destroying angel, deadly galerina, the devil’s bolete, sickener and tipplers bane.
Many harmless mushrooms have ominous names associated with darkness: dead man’s fingers, weeping widow, trumpets of the dead, witches’ broom, witches hat and witches butter, corpse finder and the Devil’s bread. We don’t know as much about Fungi as we do about plants or animals partly because until recent centuries studying them was discouraged by the church as they were believed to be connected to the devil. Mushrooms growing in circles, Fairy rings, have been avoided because they were thought to be used as portals to other worlds by fairies or caused by witches in rituals. According to a German myth Gods are chased by devils through the forest every year. Where bloody foam from their horses’ mouths land on the forest floor, new fly agaric toadstools grow. The famous red and white spotted mushroom and its psychotropic properties is likely to be the magical ingredient that makes witches and reindeer fly.
The Ann Frank Tree in Amsterdam was a Horse chestnut tree she described in The Diary of a Young Girl. The 160 year old tree was weakened by an artist conk infestation and blew down. Humans can be affected by athlete’s foot and ring worm, fungal infections (mycosis) of the skin that thrive in warm moist conditions as well as candida, a yeast that grows as part of our gut flora but that can become a yeast infection when the immune system is weakened. The lobster mushroom is a bright orange crust fungus that infects rusullas and milky caps. The host is so drastically deformed and twisted that it is usually impossible to identify the original mushroom but the resulting mutations are prized edibles. A fungus that parasitizes another fungus is called a myco-heterotroph. The star bearer is a gilled mushroom that grows on the caps of other gilled mushrooms. Its gills, barely present, are often unable to produce sexual spores, instead the mushroom produces asexual star shaped spores from the outside of its cap that enable it to clone itself and infect new mushrooms.
The honey mushroom’s mycelium emits light while it grows in a spiral pattern. The organism parasitizes trees causing a white rot capable of taking down vast forests with its unique colonisation technique. When the mycelium has fully colonized a tree it not only produces mushrooms that sporulate to create new organisms, but it sends long black boot lace rhyzomes down under the bark of the tree, under the soil in search for other hosts. When the rhyzomes find another tree they begin new mycelial growth that decays the living wood. This method of colonization is responsible for the survival of perhaps the largest organism on earth, nicknamed the Humongous Fungus, estimated to cover 2400 hectares of forest and to be 9000 years old. Until there is no forest left for it to consume the Humongous Fungus is expected to grow indefinitely. The honey mushroom is the only edible glow in the dark species out of over 70 known species of luminescent mushrooms. Bioluminescence is the production of cold light by a living organism. It’s a natural form of chemiluminescence that occurs in marine creatures, microorganisms and terrestrial animals and fungus.
Most symbiotic mushroom-tree relationships are not harmful for the tree. Many fungi live in or around roots systems delivering nutrients and essentially extending the trees root reach. Some fungi, like the agaricus, live in the wood of a tree and protect it from other fungal, viral and bacterial infections, letting the tree live a long healthy life. When the tree dies, usually of an injury since its health is so protected; the fungus is free to completely consume the dead tree without competition. 80% of flora depends on mycorhyzal (symbiotic partnership between fungi and plant) relationships with one or more fungal cohorts. These relationships are often very complicated and make farming some of the most delicious mushrooms, like chanterelles, impossible.
The bond between fungus and algae, in the composite organism lichen, is so intimate it exists on a cellular level. Together they make a lichen indistinguishable from either of their individual forms. Both are able to survive independently but they team up for their mutual benefit. Alga is capable of photosynthesis and makes food for the team from sunlight. The fungus secretes enzymes that digest rock into beneficial minerals and water. Together they are able to live on shear rock and are found living in places uninhabitable by most organisms on the planet including deserts and the arctic where they go dormant when water is unavailable. Lichen sometimes enter further symbiotic relationships, growing on the backs of shelled animals trading mobility for camouflage. The liminal existence of these composite organisms, each with genes from two different kingdoms, illustrates that not all organisms are autonomous; humans for example are a microbiome: an ecosystem of many living organisms with complex relationships from the beneficial to the detrimental.
Of all the living cells on earth 25 % are fungi. Of the 100 trillion living cells in your body 10% are human. The rest are non-human cells like fungus and bacteria that together make up the human biome, an eco-system specific to each individual person. These organisms help us to digest our food, keep us safe from harmful infections and perform all sorts of beneficial jobs vital to our survival. There are several kinds of symbiotic relationships where neither organism is harmed. A commensal symbiosis, for example, is a relationship where one organism benefits and the other is unaffected and mutualism which is an association where both organisms benefit. Everywhere in nature different species share food, some with organisms that live inside their digestive tracks helping them to access nutrients.
The production of brie, wine, bread, citric acid and soy sauce traditionally depend on the biological activity of fungus. These uses led to industrial applications in medicine, (Penicillin antibiotics) textiles (trichoderma is used to make faded jeans), pest control (fly agaric) and many new environmentally friendly applications are being developed. Mushrooms are essential for creating sustainable systems in permaculture, an alternative to industrial monoculture, where a single plant is farmed until the healthy balance of the land is lost. The oyster mushroom is a leader in myco-remediation, the practice of rehabilitating polluted soil or water sheds, cleaning up toxic waste including oil spills and farm waste. The trend in environmentally friendly mycotechnology has led to the discovery of Pestalotiopsis microspore, a mushroom capable of breaking down and thriving on plastics previously thought to be non-biodegradable. The fungi are capable of doing so without oxygen, so it is conceivable that they could be cultivated at the bottom of landfills in an attempt to clean up some of our mess. Gomphidius glutinosus is a fungi that absorbs radioactivity and stores it in its fruit bodies, making it much easier to be collected and contained after nuclear power stations have been compromised causing toxic spills. Some large companies have started growing edible mushrooms in specially formed substrates so when the mushrooms have been harvested and the mycelium is spent the waste product can be used as environmentally friendly packaging or fire resistant and nontoxic home insulation.