Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The Secret Life of Fungi

They're back!

I’ve always had a symbiotic relationship with the fungi kingdom. When they’re ready to pop up, they speak to me in a dream. That’s where I first see them. And then there’s Cottarton --- this year again the Saffron Milk Caps (a.k.a Lactarius Deliciosus) spring out each morning in my garden under my spruce trees. Amber sends me out regularly to collect them for breakfast. I know of no other house that can boast of such an illustrious visitors. I’m convinced that they are there for Amber and I. Personally.

It’s not such a reach to believe that the mushrooms are endowed with high intelligence. Underground, away from out eyes extends a vast network of hyphae, tiny tubes complex enough to make the human network of brain neurons appear simple. The mushrooms we see are only the small fruiting bodies that pop out here and there.

The lactarius mycellium on a tree root

The lactarius mycelium has a unique relationship with the Scots pine and spruces, such as surround our house. The fungus actually interpenetrates the tree roots. From the tree, the fungus gets sugar and nutrients. Meanwhile the tree gets water and minerals from the fungus. It’s a symbiosis that benefits both parties, one that is common with many edible mushrooms. The fungus’s hyphae extend far underground and are able to tap water that the tree roots couldn’t possibly reach, helping the tree to survive during a drought.

In a recent study of a Douglas fir forest in British Columbia, by Kevin Beiler of UBC, isotope tracers were inserted at specific trees and revealed that all the trees of the forest are connected to one another, by pathways that appear to be laid down by the chantarelle mycella.

Interconnectedness between trees
provided by the chantarelle mycellium

There are certain hub trees that dominate the network. This astonishing discovery also suggests a greater interdependence between trees and communication than anyone previously thought. Dare I say intelligence? The destruction of a hub tree might have a greater detrimental effect on the forest as a whole. Maybe this complex network is what we sense when we're sleeping. Our way of communicating with the fifth kingdom.

How did the milk caps find their way to Cottarton? They weren’t there for two years after we moved in, but we did find a few stray ones three hundred feet away at the end of our driveway. I suspect that they found their way to our house via their underground network. The network of thin threads, searching for nutrients found the trees around our house and them established themselves in the tree roots. As we don’t use artificial fertilizer or weed killers, the fungi found a pleasant home.

The following August --- Surprise!!


  1. PAUL
    Thanks for all that fascinating and scientific information about this mushroom :How privileged I was to have some with you and Amber
    for breakfast this day last week!
    an old friend

  2. Rockin article! Found the paper that the tree-web came from, awesome.