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This is the time when fungi, toadstools, mushrooms are popping up all over the place. Cooler days and nights, moister conditions favour the many species that release their spores into the air, soil, or water.
Those spores create a mycelium, which is a “mat” of while root-like structures or hyphae. They act like the root system of plants. These hyphae are just the thickness of one cell-wall! You can see them if you start fossicking around in compost heaps or under rotting logs in the forest.
When Hyphae combine they form a “fruiting body”, often in the form of a toadstool or mushroom. In fact, they can be any fungal form. Those fruiting bodies are of course the organ that produces and releases billions of spores which are released for reproduction. Touch a puffball and you’ll quickly realise what it’s all about.
Fungi perform a number of ecosystem “services”. Firstly, decomposition is the most well-known job. Creating compostable materials from wood, twigs, leaves, and any organic material that “once lived”. Fungi “see” the timber from which your house is made as nothing more than a fallen tree in the forest and its job is to get rid of that fallen wood and de-construct its form and molecular framework. So that other composters can take over and slowly but surely break it all down into food for the next generation of plant life.
Another job is to connect the root systems of trees and shrubs in a forest and form an internet of transport channels to move molecules of trace elements and food from tree to tree, so everything is “shared”. The webs of hyphae, mycelium, is a perfect internet highway for this. It also acts as an information highway that warns trees of bark beetle outbreaks coming through the forest - almost like MAGIC! Those fungi that literally extend the roots of trees and connect them to that underground network, are called MYCORRHIZAL fungi and they can be quite large.
The largest living organism in the world today is a honey fungus, Armillaria, measuring 3.8 km across in the Blue Mountains in Oregon. Of course it is a mycorrhizal fungus, much heavier than a blue whale! And its fine threads of hyphae, no thicker than a cell wall, are the connective tissue.
In NZ we have mycorrhizal fungi too, such as the fly agaric (red mushroom with white dots on its cap). It connects the roots of birch trees and pine trees. Our most famously expensive mycorrhiza is the truffle. It grows on the roots of oaks, conifers, pines and hazelnuts.
Fungi have been on our planet much longer than plants: 1.3 billion years, plants have been here about 700 million years. They are not related to plants as many people may think, they are their own separate Kingdom and are actually closer related to animals and humans than plants.
Go outside when you can; get into the woods with a smart-phone loaded with iNaturalist and log what’s around on the moist soil and litter and under rotting logs. Fungi are MAGIC and could well hold the key for human survival and technology on the planet!
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