Home of the Practically Perfect Pink Phlox and other native plants for pollinators

Monday, January 14, 2013

Fascinating Fungi

Auricularia auricula
It really is a fascinating plant family. I'm not sure why a sci-fi author hasn't written a story with Fungi as the focus.

I'm not talking about giant mushrooms or slimy fungi attacking innocent folks out in the woodlands. I'm talking about making Fungi a sentient being with a neural-network that spans the globe. Imagine the fun Doctor Who would have with that one! 
mushrooms are the fruiting body of the mycellium
I don't think I am so very far out there! Especially, when you consider that genetic studies have shown that fungi are more closely related to animals than to plants. 

Boy is there a huge mycellium network under this fairy ring of meadow mushrooms
Mushrooms or which ever fruiting body you see above ground is only part of the story. Underneath is the mycelium, the vegetative network of fungal threads (hyphae) that Paul Stamets calls a neurological network of nature.

It's a huge molecular communication center that can be very small or spread across many acres.  He writes that the membranes are aware, react to change, and collectively have the long term health of their host environment in mind. I think the other sentient beings on this planet could learn something from that, don't you?

 Pretty cool isn't it! But, even my over developed imagination cannot make these wonderful organisms the bad guys. They are far from bad. They are indispensable to life on this planet. Fungi are nature's decomposers and recyclers. Along with bacteria, they are responsible for returning decaying material to the soil in a simpler usable forms ~ nitrogen and carbon. Without them we would soon be covered over with dead plant and animal remains.  Not a pretty sight at all.

Edible Auricularia auricula/Jelly Ear growing on dead  hardwood branch 
I find fungi absolutely fascinating to look at and even more fascinating to ponder.  They're used in medicines (think anti-biotics), for bioremediation of insecticides, heavy metals and tars, they play a vital role ecologically through symbiotic interactions with other plants and insects (mycorrhizal fungi) and are also a valuable food source for humans (cheeses, wines, breads, etc.) animals and many soil invertebrates. But, be careful, some contain toxins that are pathogenic to many plants and animals. 

It's an irreplaceable part of the organic web of life
We still don't know everything there is to know about the Kingdom Fungi. It's been estimated at 1.5 million to 5 million species, with about 5% of these having been formally classified.
Fruiting bodies of turkey tail, Trametes versicolor.
Winter is the best time for Middle Tennesseans to observe fungi.  The ground is littered with decaying wood and the winter rains with periods of warm weather have mushrooms popping up all over. The next time you walk around your garden stop and take a close look on the ground, turn those fallen limbs over and see what you can find. Look for Turkey Tail, Jelly Ears, or Meadow Mushrooms
Jelly Ears growing on a decaying oak limb at Clay and Limestone

You don't have to be a mycologist to appreciate fungi, you just have to be curious, look closely and remember, they're everywhere and communicating with one another!


Paul Stamets on TED Talks

I do not yet know why plants come out of the land or float in streams, or creep on rocks or roll from the sea. I am entranced by the mystery of them, and absorbed by their variety and kinds. Everywhere they are visible yet everywhere occult (veiled or hidden). Liberty Hyde Bailey

Gail Eichelberger is a gardener and therapist in Middle Tennessee. She loves wildflowers and native plants and thoroughly enjoys writing about the ones she grows at Clay and Limestone."


  1. I do enjoy finding mushrooms. They are so interesting in their different shapes, colors and the locations that you find them in are amazing. If you look at them you can see different monsters that have been in movies. I have often wondered if mushrooms have been the models of creepy monsters.

  2. I LOVE fungi, Gail and so enjoy looking at them, admiring their beauty and now will ponder their existence thanks to your thought provoking post. Thank you!

  3. I find the quite fascinating. Love the post. I am going out to look for some fungi today. Oh, and I love lichens as well.

  4. I've seen some of these in my garden and woods. We also see a lot of them when we're hiking out in the woods.

  5. You've encouraged me to look at fungi in a different way. I doubt I'll ever prefer them to lichens, though!

  6. A wonderful post Gail that makes me want to buy a fungi guide and go looking for some right now. Although it is too dark at the moment.

  7. These photos really are quite beautiful. What a great variety of fungi! They generally pop up all over here as soon as our fall rains begin.

  8. I find them fascinating too. I can never understand why people believe them malicious. They are awesome.~~Dee

  9. I have learning about how orchids have to be near certain fungi to exist. It goes to show how the ground shouldn't be disturbed. Great post!

  10. Those Jelly Ears are truely creepy and a definate candidate for a Dr Who baddy. I find fungi fascinating as well but feel overwhelmed by such a wide and diverse group that I have never got any further than being fascinated

  11. It's a fascinating world, the world of fungi. Great photos.

  12. I also adore fungi...it shows itself in all its glory during fall here...that is when we have weather similar to your winter...I found so many kinds that I snapped pictures of them all as they grew and decayed. I want to learn more about them and do a series...just so cool!

  13. We have a rotting tree stump in our yard and so there is rarely a shortage of fungi during warm, wet weather

  14. So interesting but kinda spooky too.

  15. Great post Gail. We had a speaker program on mushrooms with the master gardeners. The research they are working on is amazing. I find mushrooms fascinating.

  16. I agree with Janet, a great post, and a very interesting variety of fungi you've shown here.

  17. You show pictures of many kinds that I don't recall ever seeing. I must be more observant when the snow clears.

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"Insects are the little things that run the world." Dr. E O Wilson