Cleaning Up With Mushrooms
So you know that mushrooms are great to eat. And if you’ve been following our blog, you know they provide incredible health benefits like lowering cholesterol, supporting brain function and increasing endurance. You’ve also learned that they can be used to create sustainable packaging material and even lampshades.
What if I told you mushrooms are a vital part of our global ecosystem?
Without mushrooms, we wouldn’t be able to live on the planet. Trees would never decay. They would simply litter the landscape, piling up wherever they fell. Mushrooms, mycelium specifically, are the only things that can break down lignin, the substance that gives trees their dense, hard structure.
What exactly is mycelium?
Mycelium is the webby white mass you see when you roll a log over in the forest. Think of it as the “roots” of mushrooms. It forms a threadlike membrane of single cell-thick threads that spread throughout the soil. Some species form relationships with other plants, particularly trees. They deliver nutrients and even moisture to the trees in exchange for a little sugar, their primary source of energy. Mycorrhizal fungi are so attuned to their neighbors that if a small tree is struggling, it will sense the problem and send extra nourishment or water. When conditions are right, strands of the mycelium will fuse together to form a mushroom.
Certain fungi called saprophytes can break down lignin in dead trees. In doing so, they return the nutrients back to the soil making them available for other plants. Anything lying on the ground - leaves, tree branches, and even dead animals can be broken down, their elemental components creating nutrient-rich dirt.
Fungi can also replenish the soil. In areas that have experienced erosion or deforestation, mushrooms help to stabilize and replenish the earth. As they assist in the decomposition of plant matter, they move the nutrients through the system and create soil that can once again support plant life. Adding mycelium to such an area can speed up the recovery of the ecosystem.
Peter McCoy details the regenerative process on his site Radical Mycology. According to McCoy, we can support plant health, reduce erosion, increase water retention, improve soil structure, and the overall ecology by cultivating, amplifying, and inoculating plant roots with native mycorrhizal fungi.
Did you know mushrooms can also clean up toxins in the soil?
It’s true. Paul Stamets shares his experience with the mycoremediation capabilities of mushrooms in his book “Mycelium Running”. You can also hear him talk about it in his TED talk, “How Mushrooms Can Save the World.”
So, how do mushrooms clean up soil?
In this arena, oyster mushrooms are the star. This species of mushroom has been shown to reduce E. coli and break down hydrocarbons, making them a perfect candidate to tackle toxins. Oyster mushrooms are very hardy. If you’ve ever grown them at home from a bag culture, you may have had the chance to watch them overrun bacteria. They are tenacious and will grow in almost any conditions.
In much the same way mycelium breaks down lignin in trees, it can also break down complex toxic chemicals into simple elements like hydrogen, carbon and oxygen molecules that can safely be cycled back into the ecosystem. For very complex molecules, the mycelium can separate it into smaller ones that other microbes can them break down. The mycelium accomplishes this by excreting various enzymes. While fungi cannot break down heavy metals found in soil, they can sequester them, essentially immobilizing them.
It’s amazing the number of ways we benefit from the millions of fungi that inhabit our planet. We know more today about their abilities and benefits, but we’ve really just scratched the surface. We owe it to ourselves and our planet to continue researching and learning from these phenomenal fungi!