Many of us are doing our best to implement composting, recycling and reducing waste into our daily lives. But our efforts pale in comparison to the work of nature’s greatest decomposer: fungi. They are the primary recyclers of all living things. Fungi’s role in the cycle of life is to decompose dead organisms and return those nutrients to the soil.
The fungi comprise their own kingdom, which includes mushrooms, yeasts and mold. There are over 1.5 million species, six times more than plants. About 20,000 of those species are mushrooms.
A mushroom is the fruit of fungi, as an apple is to a tree. The bulk of the organism grows underground everywhere as a network of root-like threads called mycelium, which act as the “internet of the forest.” These massive interconnected networks actually enable mushrooms to communicate with each other, as well as to interact with plants and trees to exchange information and nutrients.
Fears of fungi are rooted in real dangers posed by some poisonous varieties of mushrooms and molds, as well as some yeasts. But these risks are far outweighed by both the healthy and delicious culinary delights provided by the fungi kingdom — chanterelles, creminis, portabellas — as well as important medicinal uses, including hallucinogenic varieties, which are being used in controlled settings for patients with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and other traumas.
Beyond these practical uses and benefits, the importance of fungi in regulating life on Earth cannot be overstated. They function as nature’s digestive tract, breaking down dead plant material, which would otherwise build up and overwhelm the planet, and make it usable for new life.
Human ingenuity has further enabled us to harness the digestive power of fungi in a variety of other ways, as we use yeasts and molds in making vital foodstuffs such as cheese, bread and beer. Their ability to break down any natural material can also be of use to help rid the earth’s environment of toxic pollutants such as petroleum oil.
Looked at in another way, fungi represent rebirth and regeneration. Their spores attract insects, insects attract birds. Birds bring seeds, the seeds fall to the ground and sprout new plant life. Without them, life on earth could not exist.
For more information on these fascinating organisms, check out the Netflix documentary “Fantastic Fungi.”
Westhampton Garden Club
One fine body…