Mushrooms are fascinating, unusual organisms that may be more important to ecosystems and human society than we give them credit for.
Mushrooms are the aliens of the undergrowth.
My fascination with them began at a very young age, during summers spent in the mountains of Romania where my grandfather would patiently teach me to identify and respect these unusual organisms.
Most of any mushroom is underground, invisible. The majority of its biomass consists of mycelia, a network of living threads that send up occasional fruiting bodies in the form of mushrooms.
In other words, what we think of as “mushrooms” are more like the apple than the tree. They’re difficult to categorize—neither plant nor animal, but closer to the latter than the former.
Mycelium is the living seam by which much of life is stitched into relation. Fungi string their way through the soil, through sulphurous sediments on ocean beds, through coral reefs, inside plant leaves, roots and shoots. Bacteria use mycelial networks as highways to navigate the bustling wilderness of the soil. Nutrients circulate through ecosystems through fungal networks.
They’re also just plain weird.
One specimen in eastern Oregon, appropriately nicknamed the “Humongous Fungus”, covers more than 2,000 acres of land and may weigh over 30,000 tons. It’s likely over 5,000 years old.
It is the largest single organism known to science.
Mushrooms are natural pesticides, are nutritionally bountiful—even strangely tailored to gaps in our natural dietary needs—and some exhibit truly bizarre properties.
Over 70 species are bioluminescent, some turn insects into zombies, one Hawaiian species exudes an aroma that may cause orgasms, a common North American species tastes an awful lot like fried chicken, and some even “bleed” a red pigment. Others look like brains or beards or baskets, some create their own airflow to better spread spores, and one species is credited with accelerating faster than any other organism on the planet—faster than a speeding bullet.
Then, of course, you have the entire 100+ species of “magic” mushroom that have been a part of human society for thousands of years, across cultures. It’s a shame that research into their unprecedented medicinal and spiritual potential has been so stymied by the myopic insecurity of governments.
And let’s not forget the humble yeast, which we have to thank for fermentation-based goods like alcohol as well as our modern baking techniques.
Mycology is a relatively new science, and researchers are only now beginning to understand how instrumental fungi are in almost every ecosystem, not only in breaking down and recycling organic matter, but also in concentrating nutrients for plant life and acting as chemical communicators.
The article focuses in on a single problematic species, but it’s an interesting read and may be a gateway into learning more about this strange and wonderful corner of biology.
Fungi form literal connections between organisms and in doing so remind us that all life forms, humans included, are bound up within seething networks of relationships, some visible and some less so.
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