Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Mushrooms Can Save the World!

I've always been fascinated by wild mushrooms, though I have never tried to eat any. Since it's hard to distinguish between edible and downright deadly I've always just enjoyed them where they grow. Last Christmas I asked for, and received, a book on identifying mushrooms, so at least I can tell what I'm looking at. This was in no way an attempt to figure out which are edible. I just like knowing the names of things.

But I also have learned that mushrooms (or more properly fungi) are probably the foundation species for life on earth as we know it. In fact fungi expert Paul Stamets now believes that we could solve six of the ecology's most pressing problems using fungi. He explains how here in a TED talk. Watch this 17 minute video and come away with an amazing respect for the "humble" mushroom. Or read about it here, in less scientific terms.

While the "fruiting body" (that bit we call the mushroom) lasts only for a short time, its underground structure (called the mycelium) can be huge and live for many centuries. A ten kilometer square mycelium in Eastern Oregon is probably the world's largest living organism. It's estimated to be over 2000 years old. Stamets talks about mushroom mycelium as a web which weaves the natural world together and believes it to be not only sentient, but intelligent.


This "mushroom" which grew in my garden last summer, must be in the "Ear Fungus" family, but it is somewhat different from either of the ear fungus mushrooms listed in my book. The shape is right but the flesh of this one is semi-transparent, gelatinous, and extremely delicate. [Edit: This fungi is in the cup fungus family, and is a Peziza vesiculosa.] Beautiful!

Over the year I took a number of pictures of shrooms growing in the park, and I thought you might like to see some of them. They ranged in colour from white to silver to orange, in texture from corky, shaggy to gelatinous. There were many I didn't get pictures of, mostly because they are such brief visitors. Several times I noted an interesting and lovely specimen, only to return with the camera the next morning to find a collapsed and blackened husk.

This year I have my book, so will try to identify these by their "official" names, but I will do so with a heightened appreciation for these amazing organisms.

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