A Fungus Among Us

By Matthew McDermott, Seattle Tilth Farm Works Manager and Joanna Stodden, Education Program Coordinator

Honey mushroom, Armillaria ostoyae, is known as the largest living organism. Photo by Grzegorz “Spike” Rendchen.

Honey mushroom, Armillaria ostoyae, is known as the largest living organism. Photo by Grzegorz “Spike” Rendchen.

To most people, fungi go relatively unnoticed. These understated organisms are a cornerstone species for the health of our forest and urban agriculture ecosystems, provide us with a host of nutritional and medicinal benefits and have the ability to clean up our environment. During the fall when they send up their fruits and mushrooms burst through the rain soaked earth, we get only a hint of these amazing organisms’ capabilities. Mycologist extraordinaire Paul Stamets calculates that every footstep impacts over 300 miles of mycelium! Watch your step.

Forest Floor

Although we’re familiar with seeing the fruiting body of fungi (mushrooms), that is just a fraction of what fungi are. To see them in all of their glory, you need to look underground. Take a look under any log lying on the ground and you’ll see fuzzy cobweb-like mycelium. Mycelium are the threadlike strands of fungi that do the work. Fungi are decomposers that recycle dead or decaying organic material in the soil and make it available for plants.

While fungi thrive, they also form symbiotic partnerships with plants that increase the amount of water and nutrient uptake. Upon germination, vegetable seeds seek out mycorrhizal communities to begin this symbiotic relationship. Fungi in the garden and farm can increase yield, reduce the need for fertilizer and help to build soil structure. Without a need for sunlight to produce energy, fungi are working around the clock in your garden.

Mushrooms provide abundant nutritional value to humans. They are rich in protein and antioxidants while being low in simple carbohydrates and fat. They are a good source of B vitamins, dietary fiber and copper. Vitamin D and selenium from fungi help boost the immune system. Many food staples, like bread, beer, cheese and fermented meats, all work in conjunction with fungi. For thousands of years, Traditional Chinese Medicine has recognized the myriad of therapeutic benefits from mushrooms, including anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and anti-tumor effects. Revolutionary western medicines, like penicillin, are also based on the natural chemicals that fungi produce.

Cheese Spread

Fungi have also been in the spotlight of bio-remediation projects. After the 2007 San Francisco Bay oil spill, after hair mats were used to soak up oil, the site was inoculated with oyster mushrooms, resulting in nontoxic compost. As Stamets notes in his book Mycelium Running, “Since many of the bonds that hold plant material together are similar to the bonds found in oil and pesticides, mycelium are well suited to break down toxic chemicals.”

The Pacific Northwest is a prime region to explore fungi. In the garden or in the forest, fungi are unsung workhorses. Take time to explore your friendly fungi neighbor. And remember: some fungus can cause gastrointestinal stress in humans, so please consult experienced mycologists or guides before experimenting with new mushrooms. Happy foraging!

Originally printed in Seattle Tilth’s newsletter, Way to Grow, December 2013 – January 2014.

Mushroom cultivation can seem like a daunting task for gardeners of any skill level. Let us show you the ropes in our “Grow Mushrooms” class. Read on for more info.

Mushroom (3)

Grow Mushrooms

Saturday, March 29; 2-4 p.m.
Bradner Gardens Park
1730 Bradner Place S, Seattle
Advanced registration required

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