by Jessica O’Connor
There is no word in the English language to describe the appearance of the fruiting body of a mushroom as it emerges through the soil. In the same way, there isn’t a word I can think of that can aptly describe the joy I feel when I see it- from the glistening of a yellow-green parrot waxcap, the deceptively ordinary white mushroom cap to the fan favourite Fly agaric (think Mario Bros.!). I hope that after reading this article you will take a little more time to look at the ground so that you may be as captivated at these little wonders as I am.
Puhpowee- It is the Native American word to describe the overnight emergence of a mushroom. I feel, the way the word rolls out of the mouth, perfectly encapsulates the act of defiance of a soft fruiting body of a mushroom emerging through the soil. As if to say- Look! I am here. Mushrooms, I feel, are some of the most fascinating, unknown, and underappreciated organisms. Yes, they may be all over social media throughout October and November, but they exist year-round, although mostly underground, waiting for their moment to emerge. So now is your chance to get out and admire them.
“Coral fungi exist in a vast variety of colours and forms. Some are complex and branched while others exist as a simple single stump”
Mushrooms are so much more than what they first appear to be. The cap and stalk (stipe, for my fellow nerds) are only a small fraction of what they truly are. Think of a tree for example, their root system can be thought of as a sort of mirror image of the vastness that exists above it. Mushrooms too have a sort of root system called hyphae which grow below the ground but in contrast to the tree analogy, this ‘root’ system is significantly larger than the visible mushroom above ground. Most people are unaware that such complexity exists, but these hyphae play important roles in old-growth forests that we are only beginning to understand. Suzanne Simard, who carried out paradigm-shifting work in this area, opened the world’s eyes to the complexity of mushrooms and the roles they play in ecosystems. Now it is up to us to ‘look’ and I mean really look!
These mushroom networks below the ground, also called ‘The Wood Wide Web’ enable trees to share their resources. Mothers give their offsprings extra sugars to aid their initial growth. It has even been shown that when a Mother Tree is near death, she will send one last burst of sugars to her offspring and other trees connected to her by this vast mushroom network. In this way, there isn’t one tree that is better off, as all the trees connected are joined in this sharing circle- giving what they don’t need and receiving what they are lacking. Maybe we as humans should take a leaf (excuse the joke) out of this old growth forest’s way of life- we might be better off!
In case you could not tell from the outset of this article, I am a proud mushroom fanatic, and you should be too. We owe the proper functioning of our Earth to these seemingly unimpressive creations. But if you take a deeper look into them, you shall learn about their magic. Although simple genetically and sometimes in looks, there are a few spectacular examples. Now I shall enlighten you with some of my personal favourites.
“the use of birch polypore as a medicine exists in folklore and more recently an active ingredient has been identified that may have medicinal potential”
It may surprise you to know that there are corals in the woods-not that kind, or rather in my biased mind, cooler! (No offence great barrier reef, which is cool, to be honest!) Coral fungi exist in a vast variety of colours and forms. Some are complex and branched while others exist as a simple single stump and then there are a few that form those massive, brightly coloured arrangements on the forest floor or on top of tree stumps, aiding the breakdown of nutrients and enabling their reuse- the ultimate recycling enablers.
Next, the earthstars! Initially emerging as dare-I-say boring brown spheres. They later emerge as a star-shaped plate with a puffball-like centre which when disturbed, send millions of tiny spores into the air to continue this lifecycle. Google it, you won’t regret watching a slow mo!
It may surprise you to know that mushrooms can glow! In fact, there are over 75 species that can! (Although most of them are found in the tropics). Decomposing organic material fungi produce carbon dioxide and light. Luciferin is the name of the molecule responsible for this process as it is an energy-carrying molecule. When luciferin reacts with the enzyme luciferase, light energy is released. Fun fact- the name of the molecule is derived from the Latin lucem ferre, meaning light bearer (although now it is associated more with Lucifer). However, the reasons why fungi glow are still debated. From insect attraction to no function at all, it must be a truly marvellous site to witness. Famously, there is a letter from a soldier to his wife in which he writes, ‘Darling, I am writing to you tonight by the light of five mushrooms’. These glowing mushrooms have also proved useful in WW1, for soldiers in trenches, who would attach bits of rotting wood to their helmets so that they could be seen by each other when darkness fell.
“Lions Mane mushrooms could potentially be the cure or at least the saviour to many people over the world who suffer from Alzheimer’s”
Fungal biodiversity is mostly unknown and underappreciated. These fungal marvels may hold the secret to many medicinal cures. Birch polypore fungus is one of the many examples. Found along with the infamous Otzi the Iceman, many theories exist to explain the purpose of this fungus- from religious significance to a possible medicine to treat worms (which we know Otzi had). The anti-worm theory is controversial. However, the use of birch polypore as a medicine exists in folklore and more recently an active ingredient has been identified that may have medicinal potential. Another medical marvel ought to be the Lions Mane mushroom. This mushroom is thought to have many health benefits, ranging from anti-carcinogenic to neuroprotective properties. Most interesting are the neuroprotective properties as that means it could potentially be the cure or at least the saviour to many people over the world who suffer from Alzheimer’s. Although not fully confirmed yet, results are promising and with more research, the answer may be found!
Well, I hope, whether you are a die-hard mushroom fan or a newbie to this topic, you may have learnt something new and that you may begin to appreciate the diversity we have at our feet!