You might have noticed the odd mushroom or other strange fungus popping up in the garden or around town. This above-ground growth is the reproductive structure (fruit) produced by mycelium. The mycelium is the growing structure and you can’t usually see it as it’s underground and has fine branching tubes. Don’t be deceived though – fungi are everywhere!
Alison Pouliot, natural historian and environmental photographer, Honorary Fellow at the Australian National University explains why fungi are so widespread: ‘Australia is fungal utopia. Tens of millions of years of isolation from other land masses has fashioned a distinctive mycota (fungi of a particular location). The size of the continent along with its variable climate, countless fungal habitats and partners all contribute to its megadiversity. Fungal mycelia pervade soils. Fungus spores are omnipresent in air, water and human bodies, shaping environments as much as environments shape fungi.’
And we need them! Although little known, the roots of almost every plant in the Australian landscape are intimately entwined with fungi. These relationships extend beyond trees to include every orchid and most shrubs and grasses. Beneficial relationships are the secret to success in our highly variable climate and nutrient-deficient soils.
Fungi not only help plants access water and nutrients, but also increase their resistance to drought and disease. They build architecture in soils, aerate them and allow water to gently percolate to deeper horizons. While often maligned by gardeners, the great majority of fungi are friends, not foes. We are in the midst of an exciting time as thinking and practices around the importance of fungi are changing. We are appreciating their role in underpinning the health and resilience of land-based ecosystems.
In the natural world it is not only the object itself that is important: it is the relationships and processes that deserve our attention. The third ‘f’ that our requires our conservation efforts is underground.
Yes, again, it is the connectivity between elements of the natural world that is fascinating and important.