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A Fondness for Fungi

Coprinellus micaceus, mica cap mushroom

One day they just appear, as if transported by lightning, shooting stars, meteorites, or woodland sprites. Mushrooms seem magical. They arrive in wild colors and shapes and have fanciful names that reflect their low status in society: dead man’s fingers, lizard’s claw, stinky squid and other delightfully morose monikers.

Our society has demonized the mushroom. We have turned it into an evildoer, a work of the devil. When cultures don’t understand something, their tendency is to fabricate stories to help make sense of the mystery. Fungi seem to breed mystery and superstition.

Fungi Fairytales

When mushrooms appear in a circle it was once supposed that it must be a ring where fairies danced, or sorcerers, or witches, depending on the country of origin. After a rambunctious night of dancing they used the mushrooms as stools to rest. In Sweden, if you throw a toadstool into a bonfire on the summer solstice you can ward off evil. In the Ozarks many mushrooms popping up overnight warns of severe weather to come.

The Truth About Fungi

While mushrooms are not created by pixies or elves, they are nonetheless magical. Fungi are one of the most biologically diverse kingdoms. A mushroom is the largest organism on the planet, and beer, wine, cheese, bread and even healthy forests are the result of fungi.

We now know that the thread-like underground bodies (mycorrhiza) of mushrooms partner with trees to enhance growth and health. They retrieve and shuttle nutrients for trees and other plants in the forest. And fungi contribute by decomposing forest waste. Can you imagine a 10,000-year-old forest where nothing ever decayed? They are organisms that makes forests, bread and wine possible. How could you not have a fondness for fungi?!

Practical & Future Uses for Fungi

The future is bright for the mysterious and misunderstood fungi. There are researchers currently working on using fungus as alternate fuel sources, biodegradable packing and building materials, and new ways (called mycoremediation) to clean up hazardous waste and other contaminated sites, including oil spills.

—Wendy Weirich, Manager, Rocky River Nature Center