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Get a feel for Fungi

Recent rainfalls have transformed many parched landscapes into seas of green, and flora and fauna are flourishing once more. This is also a time when weird looking fungi rises up, seemingly from nowhere, before mysteriously disappearing.

Image Credit: Maree Manby

Attitudes to fungi vary; the more curious may stop and glance, while others fear going near it. Some will even step on it and walk away but mostly fungi is disregarded as unimportant.

 

But mycologists (biologists specialising in fungi) say that, with the global realisation of climate change, it’s about time the fungi kingdom is given the attention it deserves. American author of Fantastic Fungi Paul Stamets writes: “Everyone is looking above

ground for solutions to our environmental problems and ignoring the power of the underground fungal networks that are capable of offering so many solutions”.

 

Fungi are neither animals or plants, though they contain substances from both. They are in a magical kingdom of their own but connected to all other living species, and essential for our survival.

 

Image Credit: Maree ManbyWhere do fungi come from?

Most fungi reproduce by releasing tiny spores from fruiting bodies that are visible above ground. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi – they are not plants, as often thought. Look underneath a mushroom cap with a microscope, and you will see a flurry of spores being released on a continuous basis. Some fungi drop spores, which are blown away by the wind. Others shoot them out in an explosive burst.

Fungi live everywhere – in water, soil, in the air, on our skin and hair and inside our bodies. While many studies in the past have concentrated on a few fungi that can affect our bodies in a negative way, scientists are now discovering the positive role many different fungi play in our immune health systems and our environment.

Fungi have come up to be saviours of a kind, producing compounds that can combat bacteria, viruses and even cancers. They also have the ability to clean up our contaminated environments and remove a wide array of man-made toxins. Different fungi degrade different compounds; some are generalists, others specialists.

Mycorrhizal fungi at work

Image Credit: Wayne Boatwright

Mycorrhizal fungi are principal decomposers in ecological systems, breaking down the dead and recycling the debris into living organisms. Fungi don’t make their own food like plants, instead they feed on dead and decaying plants and animals. When an older tree (parent or mother tree) dies or drop leaves, it is mycorrhizal fungi that starts the decomposing process, harvesting nutrients back into the ecosystem to nourish younger trees in the neighbourhood. Research shows that mother trees recognize their own kin (seedling offspring) through these networks. If a Mother tree knows there are pests around, she’ll release a chemical into the soil to fight off intruders – one reason why koalas are fussy eaters.

The mycorrhizal fungi form a network; a wood-wide web of branching thread-like material (hyphae) collectively known as mycelium. The organism forms a symbiotic relationship with the tree wrapping around soil particles and extracting nutrients and water and bringing it back through the web to the roots of the tree.

In return, the tree obliges the fungus by providing it with the sugars that the fungus needs to survive. These sugars are infused with carbon that the tree has accumulated through photosynthesis. Once the carbon has been absorbed by these fungi, it can stay underground for thousands of years – another good reason to treasure old trees. Fungi don’t grow old like we do; they can live forever as long as they have food to grow on.

TIPS TO HELP FUNGI SURVIVE

The Roberts happily commit to retaining a fallen tree to give back to the soil.

There are 1.5 million species recorded worldwide and more being discovered every day. In the search to identify more potential lifesaving fungi, mycologists now hold regular workshops. These are well attended by arborists and urban foresters but landowners, too, can play an important role:

Let sleeping logs lie

One of the most important and rapidly vanishing fungal habitats is that of old wood. Whether dead trees are standing or fallen, fungi and other organisms will slowly be dismantling them back into soil to release nutrients for forest regeneration.

Next time you have an arborist trim a large tree, consider keeping some of the cut timber or deadwood for use in landscaping. It will provide habitat and food for native animals, birds, and myriad of other organisms.

Go easy with woodchip mulching

Spreading too much woodchip in gardens can create new environments for some fungi but also destroy the original environment, leading to a loss of a greater range of fungi.

Remember not all fungi prefer their habitats diced into evenly sliced pieces. Some fungi are weeds and can be spread easily, particularly in mulch.

Be knowledgeable about fungi

For more information visit qldfungi.org.au or veterantreegroup@yahoo.com.au

“My hope lies in the belief we find the curiosity and imagination to rethink fungi. This will be not just for a more sensitive coexistence, but as a model for an enriched understanding of all life.” Australian author The Allure of Fungi, Alison Pouliot.

 


AUTHOR: GAIL BRUCE

Gail is passionate about the restoration and preservation of Australia’s precious flora.

She has a Bachelor of Communication and Certificate III in Conservation and Land Management, and her work in local koala conservation was recognised when she was awarded Redland City Council’s Environment Award in 2000.

Gail is well known in Arborist circles, being a regular contributor to Australian Arbor Magazine, Redland City Bulletin, as well as Public Relations Officer for Redland Organic Growers Incorporated.