The role of fungi

In Permaculture, we often talk about the various layers of the forest, and the roles they play.  One often overlooked “layer” is mycelium.  This is living organism that produces reproductive growths that we like to call “mushrooms.”

Fungi serve many roles, most of which are critical.  They accelerate the decomposition process, building soil more quickly.  The mycelium also contribute to the exchange of nutrients between plants and micro-organisms in the soil.  They create a communication network between trees.  When a tree on the edge of the forest gets a pest infection, it communicates with the other trees deeper in the forest, and those trees begin producing defensive chemicals before the pests reach them.  The communication happens over this fungal network.

During the “Re-greening the Desert” project near the Dead Sea, some of the locals declared that the project must be “washing the salts through with excessive use of water.”  When it was explained that this was not the case, soil samples were examined to try to determine what was really happening.  The fungi that started showing up had actually produced a waxy substance around excess amounts of salt in the soil, which made the salt non-soluble, and thus protected the soil from the damage it could cause.

Fungi serve as food and medicine to people and other animals.

They are also used in ecological disaster restoration projects to clean up pollutants and disease.  Some varieties can filter and protect against bacterial and viral infestation.  Some varieties attack nematodes.  A few even attack insects, such as ants.

Mycofiltration, mycorestoration, mycopesticides, rebuilding healthy soil, and providing food and medicine are only some of the reasons you should consider learning more about fungi.

If you’re interested, one of the leading experts on fungi is Paul Stamets.  He’s written several books, but “Mycelium Running” is one of the best.  It covers all of these topics, as well as how to propagate and grow your own.  You should check it out, sometime.