By Dylan Love
Mushrooms are fantastic little fungi with plenty of health benefits. They’re great for you, but they serve an even greater purpose in nature.
You might remember learning about mushrooms in high school biology, when you were introduced to the fungi kingdom. Mushroom bodies are made up of mycelia, which are structures composed of tiny spider web-like threads called hyphae. Think back to pictures of mold you may have seen when learning about this — up close, mycelia are simply a thick white or cream-colored network of interwoven fibers.
Mycelia are also the real stars of this story. According to fungi expert Paul Stamets, mycelia are highly intelligent structures. That’s right: intelligent.
They spread out and respawn, forming massive networks. Mycelia are made up of rigid cell walls, which allow them to move through soil and tough environments. They’re capable of breaking down structures in nature and holding up to 30 times their mass. Mycelia also extend the area in which the fungi they’re attached to can find water and nutrients. In fact, Stamets refers to mycelia as “extended stomachs, lungs, and neurological membranes.”
Most importantly, mycelia can attach themselves to the roots of plants, forming a symbiotic relationship with them. Fungi of this nature are known as mycorrhizal fungi (in a mycorrhizal relationship).
By attaching their mycelia to existing plant root systems, mycorrhizal fungi have created a massive underground neural network that plants and fungi use to communicate. Research shows that mycorrhizal fungi are compatible with about 90 percent of land plants.
So what does it mean for these structures to be connected?
Mycelia in fungi are capable of collecting intelligence and transmitting it to their corresponding plants and neighbors — whatever they’re connected to, really. This intelligence includes information about how to survive and fight disease, warnings about nearby dangers, and guidance in raising a host plant’s defenses. Mycelium also act as a kind of “mother” that allows the transfer of nutrients among interconnected plants.
A single cubic inch of soil can contain up to eight miles of mycelium cells. Quite literally, that’s a lot of ground to be covered, and a lot of intelligence to be shared.
Mycelia essentially extend a plant’s root system because the long, thread-like structures are particularly good at reaching out and capturing moisture and nutrients from soil. There’s plenty of surface area to collect nutrients from, which mycorrhizal fungi then share with the roots of the host plant, who in turn, share them with surrounding plants. Younger seedlings are able to get carbon from older donor trees — they literally help each other survive.
Remember the relationship between plants and fungi is a symbiotic one, so the fungus gets a little something out of it, too. In return for nutrients, plants provide fungi with photosynthesized nutrients (mostly sugars and carbohydrates) so they survive and thrive and the relationship can continue.