Fungi and the mysterious threads that connect things
I’m currently reading a wonderful book on fungi. It is fasinating! If ever there has been an obscure wonder it is mycelium, the networks in the soil formed of fungi threads. The book is by Merlin Sheldrake and I totally recommend it. In honour of the mycelium here is the little essay I wrote on here back in 2017. If it intrigues you then the book is far better.
Mushrooms! And how they help the trees talk
Mushrooms are amazing, I love to eat them, to look at them, to draw them, and when I investigate them they are quite mind boggling. No, before you ask, I haven’t tried magic mushrooms, one day maybe.
Opposite where I live in Newington Green there is a magnificent greengrocers which sells all sorts of vegetables and fruit, from the everyday parsnip to the weird and wonderful where I can only guess at name and purpose. Among this there are mushrooms of many types. Although recently it has been decided that mushrooms aren’t actually vegetables, but closer to animals, I and the greengrocers aren’t worrying about that right now. Yesterday I brought a selection of the more visually enticing mushrooms to paint. A friend popped round and on seeing the mushrooms said “Are those colours real? They’re not edible are they? They look poisonous”. I paint them in watercolour laid out in a line. It is difficult though, they wither very quickly and darken in colour.
Autumn is the time for wild mushrooms, that smell of autumn woodlands is created by fungi working their way up through the soil. The mushroom itself is of course the flowering body of the fungi, the part that disperses the spores. Fungi themselves are everywhere, often microscopic they are on every surface, in the air we breath, and everywhere we put our foot. Underneath, in the soil, is an intricate web of fungi threads, called the mycelium, which can exist in the tiny body of a dead fly or span across an entire forest. In the Oregon’s Blue Mountains in the United States there is a mycelium that occupies 2384 acres and is thought to be between 2000 and 8000 years old!
A friend and I once created a mycelium installation at the ICA. It was good fun, black inside with threads criss crossing through it. Members of the public enjoyed going and just sitting inside. They said they found it comforting. Recently I feel like I need to dig a hole in the ground and bury myself inside, amongst the roots and threads, I haven’t done so yet, it is probably from me reading too much Brian Catling and his book of abandoned angels.
As mentioned before trees have symbiotic relationships with fungi. Apparently 90 per cent of all land plants have mutually beneficial relationships with fungi so it is nothing unusual. The tree obtains sugars through photosynthesis for the fungi and the fungi obtains nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen from the soil for the tree. Plants also communicate with each other through fungi. Mycelia link up plants that are wide apart. In the media this is often described as being like the world wide web, but so much is described as being like the internet these days the phrase makes me cringe. But trees can transfer carbon, phosphorous and nitrogen between themselves through the mycelia. A large tree can help a small young tree in this way. It has also been found that old trees that can no longer photosynthesis are sometimes kept alive by trees they are connected to through the mycelium. No one knows why.
Amazing thought that, plants are communicating with each other and using the fungal networks to do so. Trees can also use mycelium to transfer chemical signals warning other plants of oncoming signals. This was initially discovered on tomato plants. The tomato plants are grown in pairs. Some of them are allowed to form fungal networks and some aren’t. The leaves of one plant in each pair was sprayed with blight disease. Air-tight plastic bags were used to stop any above ground signalling between plants. After 65 hours the scientists tried to infect the second plant in each pair. They found that if the plant pair had been allowed to develop mycelia the second in the pair was much less likely to get the blight and if they did they had significantly lower levels of damage.
I suppose I cant really mention this relationship without mentioning the other side of it. Some trees have been found to pass poisons across through the mycelium. Some trees don’t like other trees growing too near them, they like some space to themselves, so they send out poison via their roots and the mycelium to poison potential newcomers. Bit like me in my flat.
Fungi also feed on dead organic matter, and what a vital role that is for without this the world would pile up with dead leaves, dead wood, dead animals and other matter. The dead matter is broken down and returned as nutrients in the soil for plants again. There is even rumours that mushrooms can affect the weather!
Today the mushrooms on my table have become shrivelled shadows of what they were. I finish the painting and am still determined to eat them. I slice them and fry them with a lot of garlic. Delicious! Much more tasty than your regular mushroom. And I’m not dead yet…