my growing fascination with (yup!) fungus
A WEIRD COMMON THREAD—OR SHOULD I SAY FILAMENT?—ran through my web surfing this week. I seem to be hanging out among the fungi, those all-important neither-plants-nor-animals that have the power to make the world go round, but also to bring some plants (think Dutch elm disease and chestnut blight), animals (currently, it seems, bats) and even us humans to their knees. Lurk along and learn with me:
FIRST, A LITTLE SCIENCE LESSON: Fungi don’t have chlorophyll, so they cannot make their own food (like plants do), nor can they ingest it (like animals), except through absorption from their surrounding environment. Most fungi are saprophytes, meaning they feed on dead or decaying material, like the leaf litter of the forest floor—or the debris in your compost heap. Their second critical role: Most of the plant kingdom depends on symbiotic fungi called mycorrhizae, which inhabit the plants’ roots, to live. (Thank you for patiently listening to that.)
I MADE PIZZA THE OTHER DAY (no, not a mushroom pizza), something I do a lot from scratch, and when the yeast acted oddly I did what any 21st century human does: I looked for an explanation online. I still don’t know what caused my yeast to misbehave, but here’s what I learned: The kind of yeast you bake with (or make beer or champagne with) are unicellular fungi, technically speaking. The Yeast Genome (no, I didn’t make it up) told me so. And if you’re still saying “yeast genome?” remember that we share a majority of our DNA with chimpanzees, yes, but also a healthy percent with yeast, making yeast a great (cheap, fast, easy) study subject for microbiologists trying to unlock mysteries of human cells.
AT LEAST MY HOMEMADE TOMATO SAUCE (if not the dough) behaved on that pizza pie, despite the various fungal diseases of this challenging tomato-growing year in the Northeast. I’ve bemoaned the issues this season before, and then a second time, and many large- and small-scale crops were lost completely; mine performed at about half-mast. It was a hard year for tomatoes, but remember my bumper crop of bright orange telial horns, one phase of the tenacious cedar apple rust cycle? Another fungal disease.
MY HERO: MAD(CAP) SCIENTIST TOM VOLK of Wisconsin-La Crosse, a mycologist and longtime Professor of Biology whom I know only from many visits to his website, calls people like me “myco-curious,” and his wild site is a must (if chaotic) adventure, with many fungus-lined rabbit holes to explore. (He’s on a sabbatical now to write a field guide and revamp the site, and I can’t wait for both.) You’ll learn that of the 70,000 species of fungus, 250 are edible, 250 can kill you—and the rest, well, funky business or just plain blecch. Click through his lecture slides from Intro to Fungi, or read the wacky Fungi FAQ (which will tell you what that disgusting stuff growing on your mulch is). Or just meet this funny, inspiring mushroom man whose candor and gratitude about everything from his heart transplant to his obvious delight in what he does keep me coming back. Recently Volk’s homepage featured the fungus found on bats in caves where heavy death rates have been reported, which bring us to this…
BATS HAVE BEEN DISAPPEARING in terrifying numbers, in a pattern first noted in 2006 near Albany, New York, that has spread from Vermont to Virginia. The losses are probably because of a fungus that is known as White Nose Syndrome, previously unknown to science but now named Geomyces destructans (that’s some spot-on specific epithet, the second word or species name in a Latin binomial). I say probably because the fungus may be a side effect of some other issue, as this very thorough article in Scientific American explains. Without bats, it reminds us, we’d face not just a booming mosquito population (among other pests), but if it spread to warmer zones farmers would be without one pollinator for avocado and plantain, and the only creature that pollinates agave (the stuff of tequila and my favorite sweetener, agave nectar). A must-read.
ORDER IN THE KINGDOM: When the topic’s fungi, I have a soft spot for Tom Volk’s site, but others are more, well, streamlined, with a different quality altogether: Mykoweb by Michael Wood (which like Volk’s has been online for many years) just underwent a redesign and is quite the orderly world of mushrooms (with the occasional laugh still remaining, like Wood’s chosen portrait of himself). It concentrates in, but isn’t limited to, California species, and also has a list of amateur mycology societies and recipes and more.
Roger Phillips, co-author (with Martyn Rix) of a beloved series of photographically rich, large-format plant guides, has an online three-page visual key to the principal genera of mushrooms at RogersMushrooms.com; each individual genus in the composite images can be clicked and then leads you to species-by-species photos.
And I could go on—and will, searching for mushrooms, and other helpful and not-so-helpful fungi, and telling them hello, and sometimes thank you. Just don’t ask me their names–yet. The photos here are just the mushrooms that join me here each fall in the garden, anonymous for now but probably not long. You know how curious I can be.