Let's Learn About Fungi
Agarikon the "elixer of long life"
Agarikon mushroom (Fomitopsis officinalis), also known as the quinine conk and “elixir of long life,” is one of the oldest and longest-living mushrooms on the planet. These mushrooms are native to the old growth forests of North America and Europe. Agarikon mushrooms are shaped like beehives and usually hang from the branches or trunks of old, tall trees. They can live up to 75 years and have the ability to defend against the same microbes that harm mammals.
With a bitter taste and texture, it isn’t particularly tasty. But you can still enjoy it as an herbal supplement to support overall health. They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away, and you could say the same about agarikon! According to research published in Planta Medicine, the agarikon could be considered the most versatile and commonly used medicinal fungus of the past. This mushroom has been used medicinally for thousands of years.
Unfortunately, it is on the brink of extinction and the mushrooms are very difficult to grow indoors as the whole growing process takes many years. Although Agarikon is hard to grow, many are already trying to cultivate their strain on their own because of the medical and herbal benefits it provides.
Ghost Pipe... Mushroom or flower?
Ghost Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) is a plant with no chlorophyll. It does not photosynthesize so it has no green pigmentation. Instead, it has a “ghostly” translucent appearance which leads to the name "Ghost Pipe" or corpse plant. It is a plant that grows wild in the United States, but sightings are usually rare. So why are we discussing it here on our mushroom page you ask? Well, for two reasons. One because its shape resembles the look of a fungi and two because of the way it obtains its nutrients to survive.
Chlorophyll is responsible for harnessing the sun’s energy to produce carbohydrates, a process known as photosynthesis. This is how plants survive. But Ghost Pipe obtains it energy through myco-heterotrophy — a relationship where plants obtain food through parasitism rather than photosynthesis. This plant relies on a large network of roots and fungi to “steal” energy from surrounding plants. It takes advantage of the relationship between a mycorrhizal fungus and its tree source. Remember mycorrhizal fungi share a bond with a tree and the tree and fungi exchange nutrients with each other. Both benefitting from the relationship. Ghost Pipe on the other hand, taps into a vast underground network of mycorrhizal fungi while having nothing to offer its fungus partner. To feed, they cleverly persuade the fungi to donate nutrients through a process of parasitizing the fungi. Because of this some people see them as creepy. But parasites do play an important role in nature. For example, they regulate wildlife that might otherwise balloon in population size and become pests. Ghost Pipes favorite fungi species are Russula and Lactarius pictured.
Japan is known for having one of the most complex yet efficient train systems.
Not only does its railways span nearly 20 thousand miles but Shinjuku Station is the busiest in the world. As you can imagine, to make it run smoothly required an impressive level of engineering genius. A 2010 experiment discovered a way to make it even more efficient. Researchers from Japan and England used a slime mold, Physarum polycephalum, which is a type of brainless single-celled fungi with a special ability to spread and establish connective networks. The experiment involved arranging oat flakes to match the layout of Japanese cities around Tokyo. The team's findings were remarkable. Within 24 hours and without any prompts, the slime mold developed a network that resembled Japan’s railway system and was just as complex (See image below). Physarum polycephalum survives by sending out tendrils in all directions in its quest for food. The unsuccessful tentacles wither and die, while the ones that locate a food source in the most efficient way grow fat and juicy. Such flexibility makes them think that molds will one day serve in place of human brains and computers when it comes to designing networks, whether for public transit or power lines or something else.
Leafcutter Ants.. The O.G.'s of Fungi Farming!
Did you know that Leafcutter ants do not eat the leaves they harvest? So... What are they doing with the leaves? Fungi farming! and they use the leaves as fertilizer to grow their fungus crop. Ants learned to farm over 50 million years ago, way before humans and they have definitely perfected their craft.
The leafcutter ant forms a symbiotic relationship with a fungus called Leucoagaricus gongylophorus. When leafcutter ants bring foliage back to their colony, they will grind up the leaves and place the plant material in a fungus garden so that the fungus can grow. The ants digestive enzymes are unable to break down the leaves. The fungus however converts the lipids in the leaves into lipids the ants can use. The lipids in these gardens are an energy source for the ants. The fungus is provided with the plant material it needs to grow and the ants in exchange have a consistent food source. The fungus is the only food source for the leafcutter ant. If the fungus fails to thrive, the colony can bid farewell to life, and without their cultivators, the fungus also does not survive.
Next to ours, leafcutter ant society is the most complex society on earth. They build nests that can contain thousands of rooms and a mature colony can contain more than eight million individuals. Leafcutter ant society is divided into castes, with each group having a different role to play. The largest ants, called Majors, act as soldiers and heavy lifters. They guard the nest and help clear out the roadways between the nest and a food source. Next in line, the Mediae, is made up of generalists, cutting and transporting most of the leaves to the colony. Next in size are the Minors, think of them as body guards.. they protect the foraging path and food source, and the smallest ants, the Minims, work at home, they tend to the young'uns and the fungus farm. There are only two species of Leafcutter ants in the United States, and they can be found in Arizona, Texas, western Louisiana and southern California. Unfortunately these ants are destructive to landscape plants, agricultural crops, and gardens. But their life cycle is pretty amazing!
Are Fungi Related to Plants?
Short answer “nope” they are in a kingdom all their own!
As recently as the 1960's, fungi were considered plants. In fact, at the time all organisms were classified into only two groups or kingdoms: plants and animals. They do have obvious similarities with plants. Both fungi and plants are immobile, have cell walls, and grow in soil. Some fungi, such as lichens (see left), even look like plants. We now know that they have unique physical, chemical, and genetic traits that set them apart from plants and other eukaryotes. For example, the cell walls of fungi are made of chitin, not cellulose and fungi do not contain the green pigment chlorophyll and therefore are incapable of photosynthesis. That is, they cannot generate their own food--carbohydrates--by using energy from light. This makes them more like animals in terms of their food habits. Fungi need to absorb nutrition from organic substances: compounds that contain carbon, like carbohydrates, fats or proteins.
Do We Grow Morels!?
We have been asked this alot. Especially in the last few weeks now that morel season is in full swing! And trust us when we say.. We love them as much as you do!! But sadly no.... if you want to know why then please keep reading..
The biggest problem with growing morels is that they don’t just feed on dead or dying organic material, like many other easily grown mushrooms do. A saprotrophic mushroom, like the oyster mushroom, feeds off dead trees. This is an easy thing to replicate in an indoor setting. Give the mushroom something to eat and it will grow. These are the type of fungi we grow at Woods & Stems.
Morels, on the other hand, are saprotrophic and also mycorrhizal, which means they have a relationship with the tree they are growing next to and they get nutrients from the trees’ roots. This relationship isn’t so easy to replicate in an indoor setting. MANY attempts have been made to mimic or force the relationship between tree and mycelium. So far, this hasn’t produced many repeatable results. In addition, morels take years to establish new places to grow. This is because the mycelium is working to secure the relationship with the symbiotic tree before fruiting. Any attempt to grow them requires A LOT of patience and an acceptance that failure is the most likely outcome. Some other examples of mycorrhizal mushrooms include Chanterelles and Truffles which is why all of these mushrooms are high priced when you are buying. If you have watched any documentaries on the relationship between tree's and fungi then these are the types of mushrooms they are referring to. The Mycorrhizal fungi benefits the tree and in return the tree benefits the fungi. *Some people think that when the tree is dying, it triggers the morels to fruit and spread their spores to find new healthy host trees. It would appear that, during this phase, they’re more saprotrophic than mycorrhizal.
(If confused by the term "fruit" This simply means that the mushroom part that you eat is the actual fruit of the fungi.)
Fungi and Parasites
Tropical birds build nests partly from fungi which help keep nests flexible and intact, but could there be another reason behind the fungal structures... Baby birds, especially when naked and newly hatched, should be vulnerable to skin infections and parasites. Yet even in the stuffy confines of a nest in a steamy tropical rainforest, nestlings generally manage to remain fester-free. Scientists now believe that fungi are playing a bigger role in these no-pest hotels. Turns out, fungi are releasing antibiotic and volatile chemicals that manage to control these parasites.
Can Fungi Heal Our Planet?
Back in 1991, scientists were amazed when they made a discovery in the eerie environment inside the abandoned Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, researchers remotely piloting robots spotted pitch black fungi growing on the walls of the decimated No. 4 nuclear reactor and even apparently breaking down radioactive graphite from the core itself. What's more, the fungi, “Cladosporium sphaerospermum” seemed to be growing towards sources of radiation, as if the microbes were attracted to them! NASA, wanting to learn more about the fungi and its ability to block radiation, recently ran a month long experiment on the International Space Station. Their findings have far reaching implications for future space missions as Scientists are now thinking of shielding astronauts and space objects with a layer of this radiation-absorbing protective fungus!
Fungi Stress Response
Did you know that fungi are actually more closely related to animals than to plants? Well you do now! When growing fungi mycelium (think root system of the mushroom) a healthy fungi colony will build up immunity against bad bacateria by secreting Metabolites. These Metabolites are considered a natural response to stress. In the mushroom community the secretion is called "Mycelium Piss". Yes you heard that correctly! Mushrooms PEE. Just think of it as "marking its territory".... or “pissing its pants” depending on how you look at it…
5,300 Year Old Mushrooms
Ötzi the Icemans 5,300-year-old frozen remains were discovered by hikers in the Italian Alps in 1991. Making him the oldest living mummy ever found. Scientists pieced together clues and discovered that Ötzi was already suffering from stomach pains, heart disease, arthritis, gallstones, whipworms and a recently wounded right hand when he was killed by an arrow to his back. In his belt pouch was a tinder fungus, bogmosses, such as Sphagnum affine and there were also two fragments of a fruiting body of birch polypore (Fomitopsis betulina), pierced and strung on a leather thong.
Scientists believe that these mushrooms were spiritual but also medicinal. The tinder polypore known as Amadou (Fomes fomentarius) is used as a “fire-starter.” It revolutionized the portability of fire. Sphagnum affine may have been used as an anti-septic for his wounded hand and the birch polypore may have been used for pain relief or for its anti-bacterial properties. Birch polypores can be ground into a paste and added to water and used in a pinch for sealing wounds. But birch polypore is also used in the removal of parasites suggesting that Ötzi had been dosing himself to combat his whipworms.