September comes, the first cold nights, in the day the sun is there, but something is different, a jumpers needed today, there’s a nip in the air, a dampness to the morning, if not an early frost, summer has slipped, autumn is here, you thought it would never come, but it has. The garden looks tired, a few flowers hang on, some even flower again, but you know deep down, the best is done, cold weather will make sure of that, but what joy for those who look, for there, in the undergrowth, a hidden world is being revealed. I say revealed, because it has always been there, we just weren’t aware of it, at least not till now, when suddenly, all around us, mushrooms appear!
Life Cycle of a Mushroom
Starting from spores which are dispersed from the gills of the mushroom, they find their way (hopefully) onto a substrate, or food source and begin to look for a mate. At this stage they are known as hypha, (singular) or hyphae (plural) and need to find a mate in order to reproduce, in much the same way a sperm and egg cell do, with both hypha containing 50% of the genetic code each.
It is after this stage, the finding and joining of a mate, that we get to the part we seldom see, the part that is in fact the main part, mycelium. Mycelium is an incredible structure, like roots of plants, or webs of silk, they branch out and seek after water and food. Some of these structures can be enormous, with the largest living organism being the mycelium of a honey fungus in Oregon, North America, and is suspected to be about 2.4m (3.8km) long! Mycelium is such an essential part of decomposition of waste/dead materials and it’s really only now we’re beginning to appreciate how effective and valuable they are, with potentially (more on this later) amazing uses for the future. Mycelium, once attached to the food source, begins to release enzymes that break down the matter so that it can be taken up as food. Once a food source has become depleted, or conditions such as humidity and temperature reach a certain level, the mycelium will begin to produce tiny pin heads known as primordia, from which will grow the vast array of mushrooms we see, where of course, the cycle repeats itself from the gills of the newly formed mushroom!
What is the Purpose of a Mushroom?
Well, not wanting to nit-pick, but as you can imagine, having read the above, the mushroom itself has only one goal, to reproduce, so it is almost a trick heading, but it is a truth that very few people know and is probably why so many people don’t know about the larger and longer mycelium stage, which is a bit unfair. Imagine being a human (you can do that can’t you?) that you were only known for your reproductive organ? Some say that I have such an organ on my head, but of course, we know that there is so much more to us than just a reproductive organ. So, what we need to do, is to look at the mycelium stage of which it spends most of its hidden life.
We know a little about worms, and a little about slugs and snails, but mycelium is actually even more important in helping to break down waste than these. Imagine if you will again, a world where leaves and logs never broke down? Well, that would be the reality were it not for things like worms, bacteria, slugs, snails and mycelium. Mycelium is especially good at breaking down wood and things that the other living organisms can’t do, they are natures cleaners on a vast scale, taking out the dead, diseased and dying. But it is not all one way, it is not just funghi mafia, eating all that it wants with nothing given back in return, as there is an extraordinary, mutual for the most part, exchange that can go on between plants and funghi, through the form of mycorrhiza.
Mycorrhiza as stated above, is when the fungus colonises the host plant, either through attaching or inserting itself to the plants roots, where it then begins a symbiotic relationship, with the plant giving sugars to the mycelium through mycorrhizal funghi, while the mycorrhizal funghi forms an almost secondary and extended root system for the plant, pulls nutrients and trace elements from much deeper down in the soil for the plant/tree to feed on. What is being discovered and is truly astounding, is that the relationship extends much further than simply exchanging sugars for nutrients, but actually forms a living line of communication between plants and trees! The mycorrhizal funghi, having attached itself, extends the area, and therefore the roots network to other parts of the soil, not just deep but wide, even into contact with other roots and mycelium, where information is exchanged on a chemical level via these networks, to warn of pest and disease threats, which then lead to the plant/tree (if able) to put in place the necessary measures to defend itself. So whilst we invented the world wide web, nature was already doing it through the mycelium web; truly astounding!! One other result of this network is that other trees and plants can exchange nutrients with each other as and when needed.
This sounds very good, but when the mycelium turns bad – the host gets it! It’s not yet fully understood what triggers the parasitising of a host, but when it does, the fungus literally eats its host alive, breaking it down using powerful enzymes to feed the mycelium that’s attached. This is probably one of the reasons why gardeners fear funghi, but quite honestly, the majority of funghi do not attack, but help our garden plants, whilst the chances are that not always, but almost certainly the case, the host has probably been weakened and in a state of three D’s, dead, diseased or dying. Like most things that are attacked, it is generally because they are under stress and therefore weak, hence the importance of right plant, right place.
One last note on mycorrhizal funghi is that there are two types, ECTOmycorrhizal and ENDOmycorrhzal, with ecto being typically formed from woody plants such as shrubs and trees. From a gardeners point of view, these are the most beneficial when it comes to growing fruit and veg, as they help extend their root system. The best way to look at it is as if the mycorrhizal funghi were a plug socket, which when connected to a plant root, supplies nearly all of its needs for nutrients and life. This is why having healthy, covered and un-dug soil, is the best thing for your garden, as every time you take a spade or fork to the garden, you risk breaking these untapped networks. Of course they will re-form and digging at times is necessary for planting out new plants, removing diseased ones, splitting up, Etc. but really, in terms of allotment style growing, where the veg is removed and the soil dug over to break its structure down, it is almost always unnecessary and more harmful, than applying a good few inches of mulch to protect the ground.
Interesting Facts About Mushrooms
- Mushrooms produce vitamin D from sunlight.
- They are closer in DNA to humans than plants.
- Mycelium can eat harmful substances.
- Funghi produces antibiotics (they’re single celled) to fight off harmful bacteria and protect its food source.
- White mushrooms, button mushrooms and portobello mushrooms are the same species, but at varying cycles of their life.
What Are The Future Uses For Mushrooms?
Believe it or not, there won’t be anywhere near as much space as there is needed for this subject to be discussed here, such are the immense amount of uses for funghi, but one future use could be to make bricks, which has a structure more dense than wood, from straw and mycelium. Another use will be in making new antibiotics, with many medicines using mushrooms in various ways already. Two areas though, that are getting scientists very excited are around their uses with oil and radioactive waste. Believe it or not, they think they have found a funghi that eats oil and radioactive waste, that if harnessed, could be used for the clean up of some of the most damaging disasters the world faces today. Without going too scientific, funghi could be used (non-sporulating) to kill and prevent insect pests. Really, I could go on and on, but there are so many uses for them and the thought of having oil spills cleaned not with harmful chemicals, which are simply a lesser of the evil it’s cleaning, but with biological controls without trace is truly remarkable.