While I don’t know too much about mushrooms, I do know that I love to eat them in all their glorious varieties. As a forager, (sort of) I would not pick them wild, as that would be pressing my luck – although I do enjoy that sort of foul play in a good murder mystery! That said, it is always instructive and entertaining to listen to Paul Stamets, a myocologist for over 30 years, speak on the subject of mushrooms – his lifelong passion.
Mushrooms are Critical to Good Soil
Mushrooms are a major element in soil. I knew that bacteria were, but it turns out that mushrooms are critically important in recycling plants and turning them into rich soil.
Fungi and bacteria play an integral role in the earth. They break down complex organic compounds such as proteins, carbohydrates and fats into their most basic elements that can be used by other generations of organisms.
Since plants don’t have digestive organs like stomachs and intestines – they rely on soil fungi and bacteria to digest nutrients for them. In return, the plants feed soil organisms with sugars they make in photosynthesis.
Mushrooms reach far into the ground, and surround the roots of a plant with thread-like networks called hyphae. Some attach to plant roots, creating thin filaments that increase the surface area of plant roots up to a thousand times – much like the villi in the small intestine of humans. Fungal hyphae and plant roots working together are called mycorrhizae. A thimbleful of soil can contain miles of mycorrhizal filaments.
Delicate Filaments that are Integral to the Health of the Plant
The mycorrhizal filaments of fungi also produce organic compounds that hold soil together and improve the soil structure to support root growth. In addition, mycorrhizae in the soil have been found to suppress soil-borne pathogens and protect plants from root diseases.
There appears to be a fundamental mutualistic relationship between fungi and green plants that has been evolving for millions of years. Most plants depend on some type of fungal activity to flourish.
Mycorrhizal fungi are not fertilizers, although a fungal inoculation of roots can improve a plant’s growth rate and tolerance to drought and disease. You can improve the soil in your garden with the addition of mycorrhizae. Over-watering, over-fertilization and particularly the use of fungicides can eliminate mycorrhizae.
Just another reason to never use fungicides on your plants.
Mushrooms are Critical to Good Health
According to Paul Stamets, although there are about 140,000 species of mushroom forming fungi, science is only familiar with about 10%. We know that several species of mushrooms are powerful immune stimulants and are being studied for use in cancer therapies.
The species Cordyceps has long been used within both traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine and is known for its anti-tumor and anti-inflammatory properties. It is also used for anti-aging, protection for liver and kidneys, to increase blood flow, to normalize cholesterol levels, and has been used to treat Hepatitis B. It also has anti-depressant effects.
There is a lot to study in just this one species.
The Shiitake mushroom has also been used medicinally for thousands of years for its powerful anti-tumor, anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties. It has also been used for blood sugar stabilization, reduced platelet aggregation, and reduced atherosclerosis. Shiitake also contains eritadenine, which has strong cholesterol-lowering properties.
The Reishi has been used medicinally in Asia for thousands of years. Reishi contains ganoderic acid which is being used to treat lung cancer, leukemia and other cancers. Reishi also has anti-bacterial, anti-viral anti-fungal properties. It has been used as an anti-inflammatory for arthritis, for normalization of blood cholesterol levels and blood pressure and for immune system stimulation.
We also know that commonly used antibiotics such as Penicillin, streptomycin, and tetracycline are derived from fungi and these substances are useful for the mushroom itself and for humans.
These species of mushrooms may be found at super markets, farmers markets, etc. Some say that organic mushrooms are important, as they do absorb everything from the soil around them. However, mushrooms are listed on the clean 15 list from EWG.
Mushrooms May be Used in Bioremediation
Mushrooms are useful not only as food and medicine; some are also being used in bioremediation, to absorb and digest dangerous substances like oil, pesticides and industrial waste in places where they threaten the environment.
According to Paul Stamets, who has been studying the use of fungi for bioremdiation,
Mycelium—the network of fungal cells—produces extracellular enzymes and acids that can dismantle long chains of hydrogen and carbon, the base structure common to oils, petroleum products, pesticides, PCBs, and many other pollutants.
For the past four years I have been working with Battelle Laboratories, a non-profit foundation widely used by the United States and other governments in finding solutions to toxic wastes. We began a series of experiments employing the strains from my mushroom gene library, many of which came from specimens collected while hiking in the old growth forests of the Olympic and Cascade mountains.
The first significant study showed that a strain of Oyster mushrooms could break down heavy oil… Analyses showed that more than 95 percent of the PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) were destroyed, reduced to non-toxic components. The mushrooms were also free of any petroleum products.
Apparently the ancestral strains of mushrooms we see today have survived millennia due to their robust ability to adapt. These adaptive mechanisms are the very foundation of ecological stability and vitality and may be harnessed to remediate mistakes made by humans.
I’m going to make a point of adding more varieties of mushrooms to my diet! I also intend to add mycorrhizal fungus to my garden this year!
I loved hearing Paul Stamets speak at the Food Growers Summit that is going on right now.