Without fungi, life is unimaginable. They are the healers, regulators, sensors and supporters of the biosphere. The earthy aroma, the endless forms and the exciting colours of mushrooms become discernible only when they propel through the earth. However, the true wonder lies beneath our very feet, as they spread across vast expanses, forming a silent network that stretches gazillions of acres, scaffolding the whole world within by performing astonishing feats.
Fungi do not have a secret sanctuary and can manifest anywhere and everywhere. We can see them forming pallets resembling an enigmatic chain of islands on wood; or like a delicate form resembling a blooming flower; or as an army standing with high dignity on unfurled leaves, swaying and nodding, or solitarily perched on soil with fiercely vibrant colours that attract insects that aid in the dispersal of spores. There are a few that exhibit a remarkable phenomenon where their mycelium forms expansive ‘fairy rings’ spanning extensive distances, enduring for centuries and eventually giving rise to a synchronised eruption of mushrooms in a circular pattern. Mycelium is like a single organism that spans the globe. It is so vast that it could wrap around the Earth several times. And yet, it is so small that you could hold it in your hand!
Fungi play vital roles in decomposition, nutrient cycling, symbiosis, soil structure, and food webs, supporting ecosystem health. They have unique thread-like hyphae and mycelium networks hidden underground, making them enigmatic organisms. Some scientists propose an electrical signalling system for fungal communication. Many fungi form connections with an astonishing array of flora through a process called mycorrhizal symbioses, expanding plant root systems, improving drought tolerance, and disease resistance. In return, plants provide sugar via photosynthesis. Over 90% of plant species rely on mycorrhizal fungi; they’re the norm, not the exception.
In the ecosystem, boundaries are irrelevant. For example, if we were to examine the interior of a termite mound, we would discover a sophisticated fungal garden. Termites that venture outside bring back a gutful of chewed-up plant material to nourish the growing fungus. This mixture is known as pseudo-faeces and serves as food to fungus which in turn is fed by the termites. The fungus manipulates the termites into building a perfect, protected environment and thus provides all of its needs. Either way, the relationship works beautifully on both sides.
Another captivating characteristic of this under-appreciated third kingdom is bioluminescence. The ethereal glow of bioluminescent fungi adds to the enchantment and mystique of the natural world. Why do they do it? The luminescence in mushrooms is the result of a chemical reaction involving two main components: luciferin and luciferase. Luciferin is a light-emitting pigment and luciferase is an enzyme that catalyses the reaction, producing light as a byproduct. The exact purpose of this glow remains partly a mystery. It’s believed to attract insects like beetles and flies to aid spore dispersal. Some studies suggest it may deter herbivores by serving as a warning of toxicity or unpalatability.
Let me now introduce you to the wild and whacky world of ghostly fungi. These fungi, like Ophiocordyceps and Cordyceps, have some of the craziest behaviours you’ve ever heard of. They’re basically like tiny puppet masters, messing with the biochemicals of their insect hosts to play mind games. Take Massospora, which infect Cicadas and destroy their rear end to use them only as spore-shooting cannon. Poor male Cicadas end up hyperactive and hypersexual even though their manhood has disintegrated into oblivion. Scientists have been trying to figure out if these fungi are secretly hosting some psychedelic parties for their insect hosts. But truth be told, nobody really knows what’s going on inside those fungi-filled bug minds!
Mushrooms are more than just food – they’re mind-expanders. Throughout history, anthropological literature and today’s drug culture, they have helped humans transcend limits. Species like Agrocybe, Conocybe, Copelandia, Gymnopilus, and many more have a pack of Psilocybin and Psilocin (active ingredients). Surprisingly, their size doesn’t predict their potency, according to scientists. The Aztecs and Chichimecas in Mexico were early users, calling them ‘Teonanacatl.’ For most, these mushrooms brought altered perceptions, elation, and joy, but for some, anxiety, depression, or even unconsciousness. It’s a wild, unpredictable psychedelic ride.
Fruiting bodies of wild edible fungi are analogous to fruits of trees. Collecting wild edible fungi is often compared to picking fruit from a tree. Removing all the fruit does not affect future harvests unless the tree is damaged, but might have an impact on regeneration. This appears to be true for wild edible fungi; removing unopened fruiting bodies is like hijacking their spore-travel plans. Digging or raking soil harms young mushrooms by exposing their fragile mycelium, risking the disruption of the entire fungal colony. Global protocols advise picking only what’s necessary, waiting until the cap fully opens, being careful not to damage the mushroom’s base and surroundings, and discreetly scattering trimmings where they originated. Therefore, a pragmatic approach is needed to protect natural resources.
Mushrooms have multifaceted roles, yet they often suffer from inadequate attention, despite their ecological importance. To ensure the preservation and promotion of this often overlooked kingdom, it is vitally important to address factors such as habitat loss and fragmentation, pollution and environmental contamination, climate change and unsustainable harvesting. Bridging the gap between disconnected individuals and nature through citizen science initiatives we can hope to revitalise this deep realm.
Cooperation, not competition, should guide us. As Rachel Carson noted, everything in nature is interconnected.