The last of the colourful leaves are falling, the mornings are starting to be crisp and the days are getting shorter. This year has been a plentiful year for mushroom foragers, as the forests have been littered with an abundance of fungi, including the very sought after chanterelles, pine, cauliflower, oyster and lobster mushrooms. Have you ever wondered though, what is happening beneath the forest floor?
It was discovered in the 1960s that fungi actually aided in plant growth, but it is not until recent years that the extent of its involvement has been known. In fact, mushrooms as we know them are the fruit of a very complex network of tiny threads of “Mycelium” that are wrapped around and tunneled into tree roots. If you have ever dug in the ground in the woods, you may have seen all of the fine white strands that looked like very small threads. These are the mycelium, and they weave through the entire forest floor, creating the “mycorrhizal network”, which basically acts as the nervous system of the forest.
The relationship between fungi and trees is symbiotic, meaning that they are two completely separate organisms that benefit and often thrive from each other. It is estimated that 90% of land based plants are in an advantageous relationship with fungi. In the case of the mycorrhizal network, the mycelium feeds off of the sugars or carbohydrates from the tree roots, and in turn, provides water, and much needed nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus, back to the tree.
The intense communication abilities of the mycorrhizal network do not end with the essentials. If there is danger pending such as toxins, predators or pathogenic microbes, certain fungi have the ability to warn plants and trees by sending a chemical signal called allelopathy. Plants and trees can then prepare and defend themselves against predators or pathogenic bugs by releasing volatile chemicals or hormones. Studies also confirmed that in the event of deforestation or a major disturbance, trees are able to communicate to surrounding plants and trees, with a stress signal.
We now also know, that these mycorrhizal connections can relay messages to plants far away as well. In the 1970s, Paul Stamets, Fungus Expert noticed similarities between mycelia and ARPANET, the US Department of Defense’s early version of the internet, when he began studying fungi with an electron microscope. In 2008, Stamets coined the term “Earth’s Natural Internet” in a 2008 TED Talk.
In 1997, Suzanne Simard of the University of British Columbia proved carbon transfer between Paper Birch and Douglas Fir trees through the mycelia network. In her study, it was shown that young trees growing in the shade, and therefore deprived of nutrients, were fed carbon from donor trees.
“These plants are not really individuals in the sense that Darwin thought they were individuals competing for survival of the fittest,” says Simard in the 2011 documentary Do Trees Communicate? “In fact they are interacting with each other, trying to help each other survive.”
According to Valentina Lagomarsino, Harvard University: “Trees are considered to be the oldest living organisms on the planet.” Throughout the centuries, trees have been resilient to environmental changes because of their symbiotic relationship and communication with fungi. The mycorrhizal networks are affected by seasonal changes, soil fertility, disturbances and resource availability. One change can have several reactions, or affect many elements of a forest. Everything is intertwined, and we are just beginning to understand the importance and seriousness of these relationships.
So next time you take a walk in the woods, know that there is an entire carpet of information highways beneath your feet, communicating and exchanging nutrients and food. While you admire all the different shapes and colours of the mushrooms, the mycorrhizal networks are hard at work keeping the forest healthy. Enjoy and appreciate every moment of it.
Angela Hicke – Van Isle Wild
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