It’s been a boon year for fungi. The extreme rainfall totals and general wetness in the woods extending throughout the summer have brought out some beauties. There’s the Birch polypore or razor strop fungus – so named because one can put the finishing touch on a freshly sharpened knife with one. The artist’s conk is a beautiful tan bracket fungus that prefers maple stumps; it can be used as a canvas for small painting projects.
I did my share of foraging for edible mushrooms for the first time this year. I lucked upon a clump of Elm Oyster mushrooms on a dead elm log. And some friends shared honey mushrooms foraged from their woods property. They were awash in them at the peak of growth. I can’t help but add the disclaimer that should one venture to try mushroom foraging one must trust whatever source is being used as a guide. I studied several guides intensely and was positive I knew what I was eating.
The honey mushroom or armillaria mellea is a story unto itself. It arises from a vast network of mycelium that sprawl through the soil beneath our feet. One such mycelial network comprises an area of 2,384 acres in Oregon’s Blue Mountains; it’s considered to be the world’s largest living organism. The fungus grows along tree roots as its fine filaments – known as hyphae – mat together and extend through the substrata. Those mycelia are a dark ecosystem of surprising complexity. Science has determined the web of sprawling mycelia create a web of connectivity between plants existing together in communities. That sprawling theme exists in nature repeatedly.
Heike Bucking, a professor at the University of South Dakota-Microbiology Department, says that communication and exchange of nutrients between fungi and the plants they co-exist with could make agriculture more sustainable by reducing the need for chemical fertilizers. Scientists consider those sprawling networks of mycelia to be living fossils. For more than 500 million years land plants have shared their carbohydrates with those fungi in exchange for nitrogen and phosphorous. The fine threads explore the soil in search of nutrients and in turn deliver nutrients to the plants they intertwine with. It’s Bucking’s assertion that the mycelia could potentially increase the biomass production of bioenergy crops as well as the yield of food crops in a more sustainable and environmentally friendly way. Her study involves the interactions of the fungi with crops such as corn, wheat, soybeans, alfalfa, clover and perennial grasses.
I’m an advocate for science. Ever since I witnessed an elementary-school demonstration showing a bean seed on a moist paper towel sprout a root cap and its primary leaf I’ve been hooked by science. There are subtle ways human activity imitates biological processes. Mitosis or cell division is an orderly chromosomal process with phases much like an old-fashioned country square dance. In the case of those sprawling networks of mycelia that have been around essentially forever I can’t help but want to leave them alone. Their simplicity as a living organism might exceed the human in their capabilities. Humans might have copied those fungal organisms in our design of communication and transportation networks. Perhaps there’s a bit of unintentional biomimicry in our designs. Consider our highways and power lines that branch and extend to the ocean boundaries – an endless crisscrossing and expanding system. The drive that leads to my woodlot where I’m writing this is connected to the Los Angeles freeway system – and roads beyond.
Humans are often arrogant in considering their accomplishments. One of our crowning achievements is the World Wide Web. That vast sprawling network has changed our communication abilities in innumerable ways. It’s a web that’s similar to those mycelial networks whose purpose is to extend further and communicate as a survival technique. Our interconnectivity with nature is unmistakable and often overlooked.
Until next week tread lightly my friend.