Fungi have superpowers. They existed long before dinosaurs and trees. Despite being millions of years old, scientists are just beginning to understand their importance.
Many of us mistake them for plants. Ellen Holste, community program manager at Pierce Cedar Creek Institute, an environmental education center and biological field station, remembers picking up a children’s book of plants with a mushroom on the cover. “Plants have roots, stems, and leaves,” she explains. “Fungi reproduce through spores, which work a lot like seeds; the spores on a fungus produces a mushroom, which is the part that we see.”
The biggest difference between a mushroom and a fungus is the mushroom is the fruit that grows above ground. Fungi grow below the surface and attached to them are mycelium, which look like a web of numerous threads called hyphae. Despite its large size, a network of these threads can cover many acres; you can’t see these either because they live underground.
No one knows for sure how many fungi species exist. Holste estimates between 1.2 and 1.3 million worldwide. “About 50 percent are inedible but harmless,” she says. “Another 20 percent will make you sick if you eat them. Some are hallucinogenic, between one and two percent will kill you if you consume them, and about 25 percent are edible and not tasty. Four percent of all fungal species are edible and yummy.”
Fun-gi facts, rituals, and omens
They come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Even bioluminescent ones exist. A somewhat new species, discovered a few years ago, looks more like a sponge than a mushroom. It’s named Spongebob Squarepants Mushroom. ‘There’s many out there that we haven’t discovered yet,” she says.
Mycelium even exist in Minecraft. Gamers can mine them.
During the Vietnam War, soldiers in the Vietnamese army wore these glow-in-the-dark mushrooms to keep track of each other and avoid enemy aircraft from spotting them.
Aboriginals of Micronesia used bioluminescent mushrooms on their heads as decorations for ritual dances or crushed them to paint their faces to intimidate enemies even though some believed finding luminescent mushrooms was bad luck. Whereas mycologist, the people who work with mushrooms, believe finding mushrooms is a good omen.
Fungi protect plants, waterways, the planet, and our health. Here are eight fungi superpowers:
- Some bioluminescent mushrooms shine so bright, we can read a book by their glow.
- Penicillin, developed in the late 1920s, is one of the world’s first antibiotics made from blue or green mold fungi. Thousands of people owe their lives to it.
- Mushrooms are kind of like healthcare workers. They save sick plants by eating the bacteria that makes plants ill.
- Mushrooms eat plastic waste. Mushrooms are about 90 percent water. They break down dead plants and eat plastic. One of their superpowers is that they can live without oxygen. They digest plastic, break it down, and turn it into organic matter.
- Fungi can clean oil spills. In less than three months, oyster mushrooms can consume oil and turn it into a nontoxic compost. They do this by removing chemicals from the soil and metals from water through their mycelium. “They’re sort of nature’s greatest decomposers, disassemblers, far better than and more powerful than bacteria, animals, and plants,” Peter McCoy, mycologist, explains.
- Mycelium may someday replace engineered plastic insulation in houses. Mycelium grows quickly and when placed between wooden panels it forms an insulating wall. Since it’s sealed it dries out and stops growing, which makes for a natural form of insulation.
- Mushrooms have a spring-like texture, which makes them ideal for packaging. When they’re broken down and formed into a mold they resemble Styrofoam. Packaging made from mushrooms is 100 percent recyclable. Styrofoam packaging is not.
- Mushrooms may someday replace leather. A handful of companies are making ethically based leather from animals and a few designers, such as Adidas, Lululemon, and Stella McCartney, are incorporating this leather into their sustainable fashions.
Mushrooms can “eat” plastics
While rabbits can eat poisonous mushrooms that may kill us, animals can consume mushrooms that eat plastic and so can we. “Fungi may break down or digest material without accumulating toxic compounds,” Holste says. “Unlike metal compounds, which mushrooms generally store making it dangerous to eat, plastics can degrade or be broken down. Some researchers did eat their experiment (of the broken down mushrooms that consumed plastic) and said it tasted sweet and had an anise or licorice smell.”
“Granted, there is still research being done on this to really make sure it is safe to eat,” Holste adds. “Think of it like a cow eating grass. We cannot eat grass. Our bodies cannot digest the material. But after a cow digest grass, it can get the nutrients from it, and then produce milk that we can digest. It is a similar idea.”
“The enzymes in fungi can break down the toxins to such a level that in the end they can be digested themselves.”
Another example is composting. “Many of the materials we put into our compost bins,” Holste says, “cannot be eaten by us. But after time with bacteria and fungi breaking things down, we can safely use the byproducts as fertilizer on our plants that we eat.”
Be cautious with edible mushrooms
If you’re a novice who wants to go mushroom hunting, Google “mushroom hunting” and the state you live in. You may be surprised at how many groups come up.
If you are wandering around the woods and see mushrooms, take a picture of the cap and underside and always identify it before picking. You want to make sure it’s safe. And never pick mushrooms anywhere close to patches of poison ivy, oak, or sumac. The mycelia can pick up the toxins in those plants and you’ll get sick if you ingest it. Cooking them won’t kill off the toxins.
If you have any doubts, don’t pick or eat them.
October 15 is National Mushroom Day.
Need more convincing?
Mushrooms are the most virtuous of fungi because they have the best morels.
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup toasted and chopped pecans
½ cup chopped onion
¾ pound of white button mushrooms, cleaned and chopped
2 cloves of fresh garlic, chopped.
¼ teaspoon of dried thyme
Salt and pepper to taste
3 tablespoons of red or white wine
1 teaspoon of freshly grated lemon rind
- Heat olive oil in a skillet and add the chopped onions. Cook for 5 minutes.
- Add chopped mushrooms, garlic, and thyme.
- Add salt and pepper.
- Stir in the wine and let it evaporate.
- Add the lemon rind.
- Add the pecans. You can purchase toasted pecans or toast them in a pan in the oven for a few minutes.
- Let cool and serve at room temperature. It’s goes well with crackers.
- Scarlet cup fungi can be grown in below freezing conditions. (Photo credit: Ellen Holste.)
- Dog stinkhorn lives up to its name. It’s foul smelling. (Photo credit: Ellen Holste.)
- Turkey tail has no stalk. It attaches itself to trees and logs. (Photo credit: Ellen Holste.)
- Chicken of the Woods are easy to spot and grow on oak and other trees. (Photo credit: Megan Eddy.)