We would not exist without fungi. With more genetic similarities to animals than to plants, this stand-alone kingdom is diverse and mysterious. Despite their essential role in our lives, our knowledge of fungi is sparse. Of the estimated 1.5 – 7 million species of fungi, we have named five percent.
Fungus is essentially a mat of mycelium – a branching, vegetative mass that looks like buried cobwebs. Mycelium can be extensive and clearly visible beneath a pile of leaves, or it can be microscopic. Underground and often invisible, fungi transform their surroundings by breaking down decaying plant matter into nutrients. Some fungi organize into a fruiting body – the mushroom.
In order to cultivate mushrooms with consistency, the complex and intricate mycological world has to be simplified. The ecosystem is regulated by creating a laboratory-like environment. Mushroom spores grow in petri dishes, kept at specific temperatures, away from contaminants. A natural material such as straw or woodchips is sanitized and inoculated with the desired species, then put in buckets and kept in humidity-controlled rooms. Only through restraint and control can mushrooms be tamed.
Humans have been foraging for mushrooms to eat, to use as medicine, to seek spiritual release, even to worship for centuries. “Mycophobia,” or the fear of mushrooms, is largely a Western sentiment. Taught to fear, or at best, ignore, the poisonous red toadstool, we grow up thinking of mushrooms as something strange, dirty, scary, or gross. While based in common sense, this fear can become invasive and impact our understanding of fungi.
Nearly every tree, shrub, and flower has a complex web of fungi – a mycorrhizal network – running beneath it, diverting toxins, saving up nutrients in times of scarcity, helping to find water, or protecting it from disease. Beyond their role in our ecosystems, mushrooms have practical applications. Some species are thought to fight cancer, inhibiting the growth of tumor cells. Others have been used to improve immune system function. The oyster mushroom is well known for its ability to feed on toxic waste and contaminants. Nutrient rich and available nearly everywhere, mushrooms have the potential to help address issues of food insecurity.
Mycologists, foragers, cultivators, and enthusiasts such as those at North Spore in Maine continue to foster an appreciation for this mysterious and misunderstood kingdom.