As we delight in the fungi that present themselves on our table at this time of the year, it is only right to give thought to those that are subterraneous. It is quite incredible to think that many of the world’s most sensational events are as a result of fungal activity and that according to many of this planet’s most capable minds, as much as ninety percent of plants depend on mycorrhizal fungi (stemming from the Greek words for fungus mykes and root rhiza), linking trees in a labyrinth of shared networks aptly known as the ‘wood wide web’.
This ancient network is miraculous. It is the basis on which new ecosytems are founded, is a major factor in holding soil in place during rainfall, helps to defend plants against disease and not only that, but by utilising explicit enzymes and acids, fungi have the capacity to break down many of the toughest substances on our planet such as crude oil, polyurethane plastics and explosive materials. Goodness, do we need fungi.
Mycorrhizal fungi effectively extend the root area, living in symbiosis with the plant (the fungi gives the plant phosphorus, while the plant feeds the mycorrhizal carbon-dioxide). But the fungi are also interconnected to each other forming what is known as mycorrhizal networks (CMNs), through which plants and trees in an ecosystem are able to share information such as disease, external threat to the eco-system itself, and pass vital resources to those in greater need. Indeed it has been shown how a dying tree will often share its final resources with more healthy neighbouring plants as a sign of ultimate collaboration for the benefit of the eco-system.
Just as when we eat an apple, we rarely think of the tree, the leaves, the roots, so too with mushrooms we don’t often view the larger picture. But this picture is so vast, so incredibly powerful, it is becoming more and more compelling, and as our environment is so deeply under threat, it must be time for us to look closer, for each of us to gain a minimum understanding of these connections and to get a fuller appreciation of what they might mean to our future.