Have you ever researched fungi?

Yes, like mushroom fungi. More specifically, Mycorrhizal fungi.

A random deep trail of research has altered the way we understand our entire garden.

This topic is one that I have never really dug into before, but it is fascinating if you’re a gardener, or are just interested in ecology or mycology.

Fungi are one of the most fascinating subjects in the entire world, I promise you. It seems random, however, the further research one does, the further interesting it becomes.

Fungi are ancient ancestors of sorts, having been on this planet for around 2.4 billion years, at least that is what we believe is the oldest found fungal record.

What exactly is fungi?

Well, by definition fungi is a group of eukaryotic organisms, like yeasts, molds, or more identifiable mushrooms. They are eukaryotic organisms but are classified in kingdoms other than plants or animals

So what could be so fascinating about mushrooms, yeasts, and molds?

Well, fungi are ancient decomposers, breaking down matter on earth long before plants or animals inhabited land.

Fungi are composed of mycelial networks made of small branch-like segments called “hyphae”.

These hyphae are comparable to a plant’s roots, they are small tubes that transport materials throughout the mycelial network.

Hyphae penetrate through organic material, such as wood, rocks, and decomposing organisms and begin breaking the material down.

Fungi digest food externally, so the hyphae secrete enzymes through the microscopic cell wall that separates the inside of the hyphae from the surrounding world.

The enzymes break down everything in search of food, they endlessly search with limited interruptions for more organic material to devour.

The network aspect comes as these organisms grow.

For example, the largest known land organism is a fungus found in the Oregon Blue Mountains and a member of the Armillaria genus, spans 2.4 miles across!

That’s over 2,300 acres!

So, the mycelium expand and continue to consume and transfer the information that it extracts from its surroundings throughout the entire network.

Paul Stamets, a leader of mycology, and the one who made me invest so much time studying this topic has named mycelium the “Internet of nature.”

It works much in this way, take the Blue Mountain mycelial network, it can transport information, food, and support molecules throughout this entire complex structure that has been created under the soil.

These decomposers are always working to break down organic matter throughout the planet, but millions of years ago we believe that these same networks are our ancient ancestors.

Let me explain…

So around 450 million years ago fungi existed by feeding on soil, rocks, and algae which washed up from seas and oceans.

This algae was able to survive in water because the availability of nutrients in water. It constantly had fish waste and other sources of food floating in the water surrounding it.  

A relationship formed between the existing fungi networks and the incoming plant matter.

This relationship could have led to the creation of plants and animals, because throughout this relationship plants were able to inhabit land.

Approximately 90% of plants establish relationship with

mycorrhizal fungi and both parties benefit greatly.

Before I mention the relationship fundamentals it is, and it is worth noting that the typical type of fungi used for gardening, mycorrhizae, is broken down into two categories:

  • Endomycorrhizal – establishes hyphae systems within the cell wall
  • Ectomycorrhizal – establishes hyphae systems around the cell wall

This will become an important factor with what types of plants that you plan on growing.

The relationship is simply broken down like this:

  • The plants photosynthesize and create sugars and carbon, which the fungi need. The fungi does not photosynthesize, and thus obtains nutrients by digging through the soil as I mentioned before.

  • The plant allows the fungi to penetrate the root systems and establish small networks of hyphae among the plants.

  • Ectomycorrhizal fungi establish their hyphae surrounding the plant’s root systems.

  • Endomycorrhizal fungi establish their hyphae inside of the plant. The hyphae, which measure only 2 micrometers in size, compared to the roots 30 – 50 micrometers. The hyphae slither their way through the cells and can set up Hartig Nets which are essentially clusters of the hyphae that bunch up and create small, dense information highways between the organelles of the plant cells.

  • Now that the fungi has established their own “roots” within the roots of the plant, they can begin their trade. The fungi is able to send important nutrients such as phosphorus or nitrogen to the plants, and in return the fungi receives the sugars and carbon that plants produce.

This relationship is severely important to our history because millions of years ago plants existed in oceans, unable to live above sea because of the lack of nutrients available.

However, with the plants ability to photosynthesize and the fungi’s adaptability, cooperation, and information networks, this very relationship has been proposed to have led to the oxygenation of the atmosphere.

Think about it, the roots are much bigger than the fungal hyphae, up to 20 times larger!

In context of car travel, that’s like trying to navigate only using large highways and completely avoiding tiny streets.

Imagine all of the information that you would miss!

The hyphae greatly augment the volume of the root system, though it isn’t necessarily part of the root system. It has established a very close relationship with its host, and allows the plant access to a vastly larger network of nutrients in return for some sugar and carbon.

As this relationship with one plant grows, the hyphae continue expanding and searching for more food to feed itself and now the plant which it has extended into.

As the fungi expands, it obviously reaches other plants and can establish relationships with them.

There are numerous interactions that fungi can have with the plants and ecosystem around them.

Effects of Beneficial Fungi

Here are just a few, I will go into further detail later:

  • The fungi will transport nutrients to the plants
  • The fungi can help the plants survive drought conditions.
  • The fungi can protect host plants from certain diseases.
  • Fungi also has a massive influence on the transportation of nutrients
  • Fungi can negate attack by parasites such as nematodes.
  • Fungi can also exert a surprising amount of control over their entire surrounding ecosystem.

There are constantly new discoveries regarding mycelium and the benefits it offers the planet. This is a relatively new science, though mushrooms have been used medicinally for millenia.

Here’s some recent research!

Science was actually a bit late, back in the early 20th-century there were actually massive campaigns claiming that the only fungi that exists harms plants, therefore, fungicide corporations were booming during these periods.

During the 1950s, a scientist proposed that fungi in fact did much more for plants than previously thought. It was proposed that not every fungi killed plants, but in fact some plants actually require a mycelial colonization to grow.

Of course, the idea was blown off.

But thanks to the beautiful practice of science, we are finally beginning to unlock the power of what these ancient predecessors.

Environmental effects

Fungi is obviously capable for great things. It assists your plants absorb nutrients, water, and helps ward off pests and diseases.

But fungi can do so much more than that…

Fungi consumes carbon, which is found in things like oil.

That is to say, some fungi have the ability to breakdown and digest oil.

Like the type of oil that is destroying our ecosystem and killing our wildlife.

There have already been a plethora of studies inquiring whether fungi can be used to breakdown oil spills, and it seems that they absolutely can.

In fact, there has been fungi reported in Chernobyl actively breaking down the radioactive waste the remains there.

Fungi is incredible!

This is an extremely important discovery.

In fact, I recently read a book regarding this topic; Mycoremediation Handbook: A Grassroots Guide to Growing Mushrooms and Cleaning up Toxic Waste with Fungi.

This book has a quote that puts the scale of human interaction with the environment into a proper scope.

“If Earth’s history is compared to a calendar year,

Modern human life has existed for 23 minutes

And we have already used one-third of the

Earth’s natural resources in the last 0.2 seconds”

This is insane, and there’s no longer a reason for it thanks to modern technology.

But we drill away…

Anyway, fungi can be, and has been effectively used to clean up major oil spills. It simply does it’s job, it decomposes the organic matter and redistributes it, thus being the fundamental mechanism for the cycle of natural life and death.

The earth is a fungal body, these miniscule networks are perfectly described as the “Internet of nature.”

They create life from death, and create death from what was once life.

It is the cycle of nature.

Fungi and Gardening

Before I get into the application of fungi to gardening, I would like to help you understand a bit better how mycelial networks forms and grow.

One reason is that it works shockingly similarly to how the human brain’s neural system works.

In fact, and I cannot verify this, I have read somewhere that a mycelial network which expands 1,000 acres has the same amount of small connections as a human brain. Again, take that with a grain of salt until I come back to this post later and have found the source if it is true, but with what fungi is capable of I find this completely believable.

Anyway, many fungi reproduce through spores, so let’s use this concept as a mental visual. The spore is a storehouse of the fungi DNA, it is like a small embryonic sac of sorts that can get deposited anywhere.

The spores can be transported by the wind, though some are large enough to be digested by larger organisms to later be pushed out at another location, hopefully reestablishing another colony of itself among the new host plants.

So these spores are inserted into the soil, and much like a seed they expand out.

There is a one-cell-wall-thick membrane that expands outward, and viewing this microscopically you are able to see little branch-like structures, hyphae, extending out towards the outer barrier.

The best example I could show is a study conducted nearly a decade ago.

  • First, researchers placed a fungal spore in a median spot.
  • Next, they placed nodes of food, oats, for the fungi to grow. The nodes were placed in the exact layout of the Tokyo Subway System with each node of food representing a stop.
  • Then, the fungi began reaching for the food nodes.

The fungi created an intricate web of mycelium extending in all directions towards the nodes of food.

Once the fungus had colonized and established hyphae around the food, it began breaking down non-essential connections.

That is to say, as the vast amount of connections is established, the fungi finds the most efficient mycelial network possible and begins breaking down mycelium that is deemed “unneeded.”

The result of this experiment was the mycelial network redesigned itself into an arrangement that was more efficient than that actual Tokyo Subway System!

That absolutely blows my mind, the fungi in this one lab test found a more efficient layout than the numerous laborers and designers that must have been responsible in the construction of the real one.

That is a simplistic way to understand how fungi grows and expands,

but it will serve for our purposes.

Back to our gardens, Fungi will greatly impact the health of many of your plants.

  • The fungi will transport nutrients to the plants. As we have discussed, the fungi continues to breakdown nutrients and can transport them long distances to nourish surrounding plants. In lab studies, identical plants have been grown under than same conditions, and every one that have personally seen the colonized plants are more successful. They form healthier root structures, greener and more robust leaves, and nutrient absorption is significantly increased.

  • The fungi can help the plants survive drought conditions. The fungi can make the total volume of the root structure up to 1000x larger. The plants within these systems therefore have a significantly larger reservoir of water that it can tap into. Furthermore, the hyphae can actually form small net-like structures that can allow water to sit and allow time for the plants to absorb them. This significantly affects the plants ability to endure dry or wet weather.

  • The fungi can protect host plants from certain diseases. It’s thought that the diseases are less able to plague the plants because the fungi is so densely interconnected that it makes the plant harder to reach.

  • Fungi also has a massive influence on the transportation of nutrients throughout the soil, so the conditions could change and not allow the disease to flourish.

  • Fungi can negate attack by parasites such as nematodes. (I have a beautiful picture in mind of this, but have been unable to find it at the publishing of this article. I will definitely update it once I find it.) The picture shows a plant root under an intense magnification, and you can see fungi hyphae wrapped around the plant root, and this hyphae was acting as an actual suit of armor against the attacking nematodes. It is an astonishing feat, many lab studies have shown that fungi drastically changes the magnitude of a nematode attack on a plant, even when the parasites did cause damage, it was still significantly less than plants that are not colonized  with mycorrhizal fungi.

  • Fungi can also exert a surprising amount of control over their entire surrounding ecosystem. For example, Let’s imagine a non-native plant begins spreading into a field full of mycorrhizal fungi. The incoming plant will not only damage the plants that the fungi nourish, but the intruders may also cause harm to the fungal system. The fungi can redirect nutrients and alter conditions in the soil to an extent that negates the intruding plants from thriving! This means that the incoming plants that could harm the ecosystem have to get through the first line of defense: Fungi!

  • Additionally, if any damage does occur, the fungi transports distress signals throughout the nearby network to prepare the plants. The surrounding plants can send nutrients and other substances to assist the injured plants.

There are other benefits, and rest assured they will continue to come out due to the fact we know so little about fungi.

We have been experimenting with mycorrhizal fungi for a while now and have noticed a definite improvement in our garden.

The main benefit I have seen overall is that our plants are much more resistant and durable.

What I mean by this is we could forget to water them, or they may not get sunlight, and the plants seem much more tolerant about this treatment.

We use mycorrhizae in just about everything we plant now!

Some further research will help you understand the connections, because certain plants can pair with certain fungi.

With Endomycorrhizae, you’re generally safe due to the fact this type will form relationships with most plant types.

We hope this article helped shed some light on the fascinating world of fungi, a world that not too long ago I had no knowledge of.

Leave a comment if you know any other facts about fungi!

I’m always interested in learning more!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.