Exploring the Myco-verse: Unraveling the Mysteries of Fungi
A sub that explores the weird and wonderful world of Kingdom Fungi
Observe the forest floor closely and a new world emerges.
The world as we know it wouldn't exist without fungi. Fungi have been around for more than a billion years - working as the natural world's architects and alchemists.
Since the dawn of human civilization, we've harnessed their powers. Our lives are richer as fruit is turned to wine, and yeasts raise our bread and ferment our beer or ale.
Penicillin, chocolate, soy sauce, miso, and detergent rely on fungi to be produced. Psychoactive compounds found in some fungi alter our experiences of connection, creativity, and even love.
And by harnessing fungi to transform organic matter, diverse and innovative solutions to social and ecological issues are uncovered.
"Is everything alright? Are you eating all of these!?" Some friends voice concerns for my well-being after I post a series of strange and unique mushroom photos online. Others marvel and are genuinely interested.
The reaction is typical - one of concern, the other of piqued curiosity. Mushrooms are both magnificent and menacing, strange and cause for uncertainty. They provide nutrition and myriad health benefits but eat the wrong one, and they'll cause illness and sometimes even death—this spectrum and frisson of anxiety foster a fear of mushrooms.
John Thorne, an American food writer, put it best:
All hunters put life at risk, but for mushroomers, the moment of danger comes well after the quarry has been run to ground…Finding the mushroom is the initiation, but eating it is the test.
In today's digitally-obsessed world, the act of foraging is a unique activity. The very act of going out and collecting food reconnects us with nature. It goes against the societal norms of obeying systems of convenience. Instead of dulled senses, you hone skills of noticing. You actively search the forest floor for the body of a mushroom, the striking colors, shapes, textures, and the earthy aroma. You take what's needed and leave the rest for others.
My relationship with mushrooms involved considerable time spent in the New Zealand bush, meandering on long forays, searching, observing, photographing, recording, discovering, and learning. It became an addictive sport. The more I learned, the more I yearned to be out in the bush, witnessing the short-lived mushroom, the fleeting fruiting body of mycelium before the moment was gone.
Russian-born Valentina Wasson, the wife of the eminent amateur mycologist R. Gordon Wasson once wrote that when she and her sister were naughty children, their mother punished them by forbidding them from going mushrooming. In American terms, that would be like forbidding a child today from playing on the iPad or watching TV.
One of the first female mycologists, Mary Elizabeth Banning (1822-1903) of Hopkins Neck, Maryland, noted:
The mycologist may liken himself to a pioneer wandering through a land filled with alternately beautiful and fantastic shapes. A land of delicate pencilings and glowing colors where mystery sits enthroned and wise men become its worshippers.
I never really paid much attention to fungi before. I never really had the chance. Living in highly dense urban areas, the hustle and bustle of the concrete jungle pulls your attention away from the natural world. Having the opportunity to explore the native bush is like hitting a reset button. You reconnect with the web of life and are reminded that you're a part of a broader ecosystem.
A brief history of mycology
The third "F" to flora and fauna, fungi, is often cast aside - a forgotten kingdom.
It wasn't until 1969 that ecologist Robert Harding Whittaker formalized the classification of Fungi as its own distinct kingdom.
Fungi have a long history of being misclassified as plants, when in fact they’re more closely related to humans. Even dismissed and regarded with disgust. Mushrooms stay hidden in dark, damp, and sometimes precarious places. Mushrooms are viewed by Western cultures as more sinister, elusive, and dangerous, appearing in children's fables as poisonous toadstools used in concoctions brewed by evil witches.
In the West, mushrooms have been relegated to a subterranean place among the cultural landscape, squashed underfoot en route to more significant discoveries.
True to his mycophobic English heritage, Charles Darwin, formulator of the theory of evolution, ignored fungi. And Carl Linnaeus claimed in 1775 that 'the order of fungi is still chaos, a scandal of art, no botanist knowing what a species is and what a variety.' At least for mushroom lovers, what is tragic is that Linnaeus was a mycophobe. In Flora lapponica (1737), he claimed that only foreigners ate mushrooms in Sweden!
In the 19th century, Dutch mycologist Christiaan Hendrik Persoon established the classification system for fungi still in use today. The study of fungi (mycology) was born. Until that time, fungi were studied in the context of folklore and mythology, with little attention paid to their biological attributes.
More than meets the eye
Today, scientists estimate that there are more than 2 million species of fungi, second only to insects in number and diversity. Yet to date, only 5% of them have been identified. Fungi outnumber plants by a ratio of 6 to 1 and make up 25% of the Earth's biomass.
Armillaria ostoyae, found in Malheur National Forest in Oregon, is home to the largest single organism. For over 10,000 years, the "humongous fungus" has lived underground consuming dead trees and growing to an area of 9 square kilometers, or 3.5 square miles.
Mycelial-magic beneath our feet
Fungi are diverse, but only around 10% produce mushrooms (the fruiting body of mycelium). Mushrooms are what apples are to trees. Many fungi like mildew, yeasts, and molds are invisible to the naked eye and don't produce mushrooms. A fruiting body is simply the reproductive organs of an extensive mycelium network.
The ‘Wood Wide Web’ shares vast networks of goods, services, and information.
Kick up the forest floor, and you'll see white fluffy-looking stuff under leaves and rotting wood. These cotton-like growths are mycelia made up of individual thread-like strands known as hyphae.
Hyphae create a network of branching tube-like structures, one cell thick that spreads out in a vast pattern underground, like a living spiderweb.
Mycelia weaves into a dynamic subterranean network at an astounding scale, stretching for 450 quadrillion kilometers (~280 quadrillion miles), half the width of the Milky Way galaxy.
Only recently, a unique nonprofit, The Society for the Protection of Underground Networks (SPUN), has set out on a mission to help map and protect these underground networks that help store carbon and transport nutrients through the soil.
These mycelial highways function like an organic internet for the forest. Unlike animals, fungi do not have a brain or a central nervous system. As with our neural transmitters, they have a network of nerves running through the mycelia via which chemicals can travel. The degree of intricacy, complexity, and connections of these chemical signals rival the human brain.
A person has only to look closely to see that dead logs are teeming with life.
Hyphae channels decay and build on death—a gatekeeper between two modes of being. Fungi break down and eat the understory, producing a fruiting body, a dazzling display of life borne of decomposition.
Mycorrhizal fungi are the most prevalent organisms in the soil and have an intimate relationship with over 90% of all land plants. And there isn't a single partnership between plant and fungus; hundreds of mycelia can attach to one plant. And one mycelium can attach to hundreds of plants.
One teaspoon of soil can contain hundreds of kilometers of a single mycelium.
An interconnected ecosystem formed over millions of years enables forests to cooperate, trade, negotiate, steal and compromise - all without a brain. Fungi connect them all.
Sporulation and propagation
Mushrooms contain spores, reproductive units akin to seeds of plants. Merlin Sheldrake, author of Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures, states,
"Each year, fungi produce more than 50 megatons of spores, equivalent to the weight of five hundred thousand blue whales—making them the largest source of living particles in the air."
Spores are everywhere. We inhale 1 to 10 spores every breath we take (~300,000 every day). They live on every surface, in every organism. Spores also have a bizarre influence over the weather. Mushrooms release clouds of spores that can rise very high into the atmosphere. The spores collect water vapor and become the nucleus of water droplets which collide with others, forming bigger drops. Eventually, this triggers rainfall, a beneficial feedback loop given that mushrooms prefer damp environments.
TikTokers and social media influencers have highlighted this weird world of mushrooms. Paired with the pandemic and lockdowns, an interest in the natural world has spiked. Mushroom videos and photos beyond the typical cap and stem pop up on newsfeeds.
You'll see corals, clubs, pouches, puffballs, and shells, to name a few. Even headlines about a motorist pulling over to the side of the road to help what he thought to be an injured owl. Turns out, it was just a Shaggy Inkcap mushroom!
More and more citizen scientists are discovering what's growing around them and uploading their observations to sites like iNaturalist, Mushroom Observer, local Facebook Groups and Instagram. Here, trained mycologists and other amateurs help identify species, fostering a learning experience for all.
Myconeer is a monthly newsletter that will showcase interesting fungi species I come across during my travels through both writing and macro photography.
I invite you to join me on this journey, pique your curiosity and bring attention to the wonderful world of fungi.