The Magic of Mushrooms

By Heather Knoll

Underneath the fruiting body of the mushroom that we see coming out of the ground or growing in trees is a large network of threadlike tissue called mycelium. Photo by Elina Araja

We’re all familiar with the mushrooms in our grocery stores, on our pizza, and in our pasta dishes.  Some of us love them and some of us hate them.  But setting aside dietary preferences, mushrooms have a myriad of uses that can help us heal the planet and live healthier lives.

A mushroom’s power to aid in healing our environment comes from their mycelium, the threadlike structure that forms the vegetative part of the mushroom growing underground or through wood and other substrate.  If we think of a mushroom as if it were an apple tree, the part of the mushroom that we usually see is the apple, and the mycelium is the tree.  This network of thin filaments can stretch for miles; one of these networks makes up the largest organism on the planet (nicknamed the Humongous Fungus and the size of 200 blue whales).

Mushrooms are an integral part of the natural process of sequestering carbon.  Plants remove carbon from the atmosphere during photosynthesis, and this is then passed from the plants’ roots into mycelium through a symbiotic relationship, and stored in the soil in the fungal biomass.

Mycoremediation, a form of bioremediation using mushrooms to remove or break down toxins in the environment, is a practice growing in popularity along with our understanding of its effectiveness.  Notably, oyster mushrooms have been used to clean up oil spills. As they grow, they produce enzymes that can break down petroleum hydrocarbons into less harmful byproducts.

Mushrooms can be used to remove contaminants from the soil, including heavy metals.  They can accumulate metals like lead, mercury, and cadmium into their mycelium, immobilizing them and preventing them from spreading further into the environment and making clean-up of the metals easier.  Mushrooms have also been used to absorb and break down pesticides in both soil and water.

In addition to their uses in cleaning up our environment, various products can now be made from mushrooms and mycelium as replacements for products made with harmful or environmentally-taxing materials.  Mycelium is now being used to make a material that is similar to leather.  This product has been turned into faux-leather items such as purses, hats, and shoes.  Mycelium has also been turned into a replacement for Styrofoam that can be used to make items such as packing material, insulation, and even things like surf boards.  Some mushrooms also make beautiful dyes for fiber, providing an alternative to the synthetic dyes commonly used in our textiles that cause major soil and water contamination in textile-producing regions.

Mushrooms can be used to heal our bodies as well as our environment.  They are highly beneficial in our diets – having various medicinal properties as well as being high in selenium, vitamin D, and vitamin B6.  Some types of mushrooms have been shown to decrease the risk of cancer, promote lower cholesterol, and protect brain health.

As we move further into spring, mushrooms will be popping up in our forests and gardens.  There are many helpful mushroom ID books at our local libraries and bookstores to aid in learning more about our local fungi.  If you are a gardener, consider growing a patch of mushrooms this year.  Wine Caps (Stropharia rugosoannulata) are a very good choice for beginners, and can be grown on wood chips or straw in the garden.

If you choose to try foraging mushrooms, please use caution.  As with all foraging, but especially when foraging mushrooms, it is best to look for mushrooms with an expert.  Be 110% sure of your identification before eating a mushroom and remember the saying that experienced foragers teach newbies: “There are bold mushroom hunters and there are old mushroom hunters, but there are no old bold mushroom hunters.”


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