Fungi manage and mediate the space between the plant, animal, and mineral kingdoms. They serve to ensure the health of our bodies and our ecosystems, help mitigate environmental catastrophes, and their mycelium are essentially nature’s underground neural network. Mycologist Paul Stamets’ important fungal manifesto, Mycelium Running, gives a good description of the overall importance of fungi and the underground webs they form between plant roots, soil, decaying matter, and essentially everything else:
“All habitats depend directly on these fungal allies, without which the life-support system of the Earth would soon collapse. Mycelial networks hold soils together and aerate them. Fungal enzymes, acids, and antibiotics dramatically affect the condition and structure of soils. In the wake of catastrophes, fungal diversity helps restore devastated habitats. Evolutionary trends generally lead to increased biodiversity. However, due to human activities we are losing many species before we can even identify them. In effect, as we lose species, we are experiencing devolution – turning back the clock on biodiversity, which is a slippery slope toward massive ecological collapse.”
Most humans probably have no idea how much our survival depends on fungi. Some of us love mushroom hunting and enjoy eating the fruiting bodies of our fungal friends, while others detest even the sight and smell of these mysterious creatures. Regardless of how we feel about mushrooms, whether store bought or caught in the wild, the little button capped or umbrella topped fungi we’re used to finding only give us a glimpse into the amazing world that lies below the surface. Every inch of soil beneath our feet is colonized by masses of fungal fabrics that help maximize nutrient uptake in plants and keep the soil healthy by helping to fight disease and facilitate detoxification.
There are four main types of mushrooms that each refer to the way they nourish themselves. These categories are saprophytic, parasitic, mycorrhizal, and endophytic. Of course, some cannot be easily classified, as they may employ more than one method of nourishment, and we’re always discovering new species all the time. But most of the mushrooms we encounter regularly, and the ones that are probably most beneficial and are of greatest interest fall into these four categories.
The saprophytic mushrooms are the ones responsible for decomposing wood and building soils, and most gourmet and medicinal mushrooms fall into this category. Parasitic mushrooms live off a host, as their name implies, and although the term parasite often has negative connotations, these fungi do serve an important purpose. For instance, these mushrooms help to restore habitats by decomposing dying plants and serve as nourishment for other species.
Mycorrhizal mushrooms “such as matsutake, boletus, and chanterelles, form mutually beneficial relationships with pines and other plants,” according to Paul Stamets. “In fact, most plants from grasses to Douglas firs have mycorrhizal partners,” he continues. These are probably the greatest examples of how mutual the relationship between fungi and plants can be. And finally, the endophytes live symbiotically with plants, but although they live closely with them, they don’t enter the plant’s cell walls like mycorrhizal mushrooms do, and they aren’t parasitic, but are rather mutualistic.
Aside from their amazing ability to nurture, heal, and protect various elements of our planet, mushrooms also possess many nutritious and medicinal qualities suited for human health as well. Many species have antimicrobial properties and can prevent and heal viral diseases. Beneficial fungi can even be helpful in healing forests and fighting against fungal blight as well. As Paul Stamets puts it:
“A blight is a species-specific parasitic invasion by a fungus that kills many members of the target species in a community. Fungal blights can fell a forest of firs and oaks in a matter of months. Nonblighting fungi, which also have medicinal or nutritional purposes for humans, may be the best defense against blighting fungi. The introduction of select saprophytic or endophytic species can forestall the spread of parasitic species that cause blights. Since live trees contain much dead tissue, saprophytic and endophytic communities thrive upon them and guard against invading parasitic fungi.”
Stamets even goes so far in his book as to suggest that people take the initiative to introduce more of these beneficial fungi to our forest communities to remedy any pollution or fungal blight that may be affecting the woodland areas we all know and love. He calls this process mycorestoration, and in many ways he sets forth very compelling evidence that this is the process by which our planet will be saved. As he likens this idea of restoring the weakened immune system of our environs with fungi, he also gives practical advice for filtering out pollution and microbes through micofiltration, sustaining forest communities by way of mycoforestry, cleaning up industrial toxins with mycoremediation, and even getting rid of insect infestations through the use of mycopesticides.
Paul Stamets is a visionary of the fungal world, and has much experience and wisdom to help us find a more rational, nature-based approach to both managing our natural resources and mitigating the damage that we’ve caused to it. If more humans would take his message to heart, and if we were all to realize the importance of fungi and the incredible potential they have to heal our planet, and take action accordingly, we would have a much greater chance of saving our planet and ourselves from a complete ecological catastrophe.