Befriending Fungi: Part I

Fun Fact: You owe your life to fungi. As does almost all life on Earth.

Here’s a very brief history of how fungi have helped you get where you are today.

Around 500 million years ago, give or take, fungi encountered the first plants that found their way onto land. These plants (more algae-like than anything) were not well equipped for life beyond the ocean – they were non-vascular and did not have a root system that could take up nutrients or seek out water. They must have been relieved when they met up with their new friend, the fungi. Fungi had the amazing ability to mine nutrients out of rock using enzymes they produce, as well as to absorb and transport water. Fungi and these early non-vascular plants formed a symbiotic relationship where fungi provided phosphorus, water, and other nutrients to these plants, and in exchange they received carbon produced during photosynthesis. Fungi acted as the plant’s first root system; plants created food out of sunlight that the fungi needed. The fungi kept growing, the plants kept growing, organic matter cycles started, soil was created, oxygen was produced, conditions for life suddenly exploded.

Fast forward 435 million years and a huge diversity of life has evolved thanks to that first plant-fungi partnership. Then, an asteroid strikes. Sunlight can’t get through, most cold-blooded reptiles don’t survive (see you later, dinos), and seventy percent on life on Earth goes extinct. The cool temperatures and abundant decaying organic matter create conditions for fungi to thrive. They get to work rapidly converting the carnage into deep, rich soil and making those nutrients available for the remaining thirty percent of organisms still around. Among them were our distant mammal ancestors.

Fast forward another 65 million years ago and here we are with our once-again incredibly bio-diverse planet thanks to the hard work of those post-apocalyptic fungal friends. Fungi have co-evolved and still hold symbiotic relationships with 95% of all land plants. In an intact forest ecosystem you might find a few hundred separate species of symbiotic fungi, living in the top few inches of the soil around tree and other plant root systems. Some are called ectomycorrhizal fungi, and those fungi grow and exchange resources around the outside (think ecto = out) of plant roots and are most often found in forest ecosystems. And then there are endomycorrhizal, or arbuscular, fungi that actually penetrate tree and plant roots (think endo = in) in order exchange nutrients directly between those organisms.

I’m probably geeking out here a little too much, but I promise this is all relevant to growing food. Endomycorrizal fungi form relationships with many food crops, including most herbs and vegetables, grasses, legumes, cane fruits, and fruit trees.

Mycorrhizal fungi regulate resources in the soil system. When a tree is stressed from drought or disease or is just getting established, fungi will supply extra water and nutrients to that tree. Once that tree is stronger, the fungi will drive a harder bargain, demanding more carbon in exchange for the same amount of nutrients and water. Those fungi then store that carbon and use is to transport (their hyphae can travel huge distances) water and nutrients to other plants that need it more, therefore increasing the resilience of entire communities of plants and trees to drought, disease, and disturbance. 

Mycorrhizal hyphae can extend much farther than a plant’s roots, creating a shared root mass with their host plant 50 times larger than if the plant were grown without mycorrhizae. One University of Guelph study found that plants inoculated with mycorrizal fungi had double the transplant success of those without. 

corn mycorrhizae

Photo credit: Mycorrhizal Applications

Also, when the endomycorrhizal fungi actually penetrate the cells of a plant’s roots, it triggers an immune response in the plant, increasing phytochemicals in the leaves and fruit. These phytochemicals make the tree less appealing to insects and pests, and increase their ability to fight off fungal and bacterial diseases. These phytonutrients are also incredibly beneficial to you, the consumer of that fruit, performing similar miraculous feats in your own body.

Arbuscular mycorrhizae, produce a substance called glomalin. This protein coats their hyphae and binds together soil particles, increasing water penetration, porosity, and moisture retention; preventing compaction, erosion and nutrient leaching; and creating ideal soil aggregates decades after the fungal hyphae have died. Glomalin is also very high in carbon, representing 30-40% of all carbon stored in soil. In one California study, researchers found that mycorrhizal fungi grew three times as large and produced five times the glomalin when exposed to atmospheric CO2 at the level predicted for 2050 (670 ppm). This means that not only do they increase growth as carbon levels increase and help plants improve their reach for water and nutrients during drought and warmer weather, but they also sequester atmospheric carbon back into the soil. 

This is all very cool. We have fungi to thank for oxygen, being a mammal today, almost all our food sources, the resilient food and ecosystems around us, our health, and potentially the survival of ecosystems during climate change. Fungi are good. But what do we do with this information?

Create soil environments in your gardens, orchards, and fields that promote beneficial fungi. Think of where fruit trees and berries in particular are found in the wild – they like the edges of forests where they have access to light but have the rich, continually-mulched undisturbed soil conditions of the forest. These species grow best where the fungal biomass is 10x great than bacterial biomass. Continual tillage, exposed soil, using fungicides and herbicides, and removing organic matter will destroy the mycelium you want to encourage.

In Part II of this blog post, I’ll talk about what I am doing on our orchard to encourage beneficial fungi, create vibrant soil systems, and grow edible varieties of mushrooms that also benefit our orchard ecosystem.

If this left you feeling myco-curious, here are my sources of information and some great great books and resources to check out:

And if you want to delve more into the world of fungi, Robin Mercy and Tamara Sunsong are putting on a MycoPermaculture workshop in Kaslo, BC in early April:

Tranquil winter scene: deep snow, warm fire, hot tea, and some great fungal reading

Full disclaimer: I am not a mycologist, biologist, or soil scientist so inevitably I’ve gotten some details wrong. Myco-enthusiasts, feel free to add corrections to the comments!

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