Amazing plant facts: How they talk, defend and attack each other through mushrooms

3 minute read

Now this may sound really Avatar/sci-fi-esque - but James Cameron had to get his inspiration from somewhere, right? The fact is plants are weird, strange, interesting and terribly intelligent. Plants are truly amazing, now let me explain how...

Please share your mushroom tips and experiences with the community using #wilde4theworld !
— Lily

the amazing kingdom of fungi


Whilst humanity likes to think itself the apex predator, the innovator, the most intelligent form of life, as per usual we were wrong. The internet, the most extensive form of communication, connecting people from all corners of the Earth is merely a carbon-copy of a natural phenomenon - the mycelium network. Mycelium (white thread-like filaments in appearance) are a network of hyphae that were created by spores germinating (beginning to grow) and coming together. The mycelium spread out throughout the ground amassing nutrients by secreting enzymes, which break down different materials on which they are growing. They then reabsorb these broken down materials. When conditions are right, mushrooms will start to form from those mycelium. Mycelium are imperative to the ecosystems in which they are active, preventing soil erosion, transferring water and nutrients to plants, allowing dead matter to decay and enhancing plant defence responses against pathogens and insects. 

Spores -> Germinate -> form Hyphae -> Hyphae fuse together forming a network -> Mycelium

A friend of a friend used chaga mushrooms as part of their natural healing regime - they had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and went into remission with this regime - that’s when it hit me how powerful mushrooms could be
— Lily

Fungi were the first organisms to come to land (c. 1.3 billion years ago) and at one point dominated Earth in the form of giant pillars 8 meters high, towering over the trees which at the time were barely two feet tall. In fact the largest organism today is a fungus in Oregon, covering over 2,200 acres (890 hectares) and is at least 2,400 years old, possibly older.

All mushrooms are indeed magic, and related to humans. We have evolved from the same ancestor and share DNA. Whilst a strange concept to grasp, humans have exploited this connection for millennia in the form of medicine, for example deriving antibiotics from our mushroom relatives as they also hate to rot from bacteria. The potent antibacterial and antiviral properties of mushroom's is certainly one of the reasons I regularly incorporate mushrooms into my diet, which I will share with you in a separate blog.

The wood wide web

mycelium network

This expression was coined by renowned mycologist Paul Stamets. In March 2008 he even presented a TedTalk on the 6 ways mushrooms can save the world. Paul speaks passionately about the science behind this often misunderstood kingdom. The talk is fascinating and relays such mind blowing facts, such as in a single cubic inch of soil there can be more than 8 miles of these mycelium cells. The next time you go for a walk in the woods, with every step your foot will be covering 300 miles of mycelium, a natural communication network. Plants tap into this natural communication system through the mycelium attached to their roots, so they can give a shout out to the bush over the river! Just kidding, although not this network allows plants to share nutrients and most importantly - information

the good, the bad and the ugly

A symbiotic relationship forms between the plant and the fungi, whereby the plant provides the fungi with food and the fungi aids in the plant's absorption of water and nutrients from the soil. Around 90% of land plants are in mutually-beneficial relationships with fungi, and those that are will be taller, bigger and stronger than those unfortunate enough to not be tapped into the system. Studies have also shown that plants will warn their neighbours of harmful organism by releasing chemicals into their mycelium, which are also connected to their neighbours. One study showed that "plants can defend themselves to pathogen and herbivore attack by responding to chemical signals that are emitted by attacked plants". 


Mushrooms can even fight pollution. In one of Stamets experiments, a team sprinkled woodchips, coated in oyster mushroom mycelium, on to a pile of petroleum and diesel waste. After six weeks the pile was an abundance of life. The mycelium had absorbed the oil and produced enzymes which broke the hydrogen-carbon chains in the oil and remanufactured them into carbohydrates - food. A mass of oyster mushrooms sprung to life from the previously dark, lifeless stinking mass, attracting insects, which laid eggs, attracting birds, who came dropping seeds, and green plants then sprung to life as well - described by Stamets as "an oasis of life"

However, just like with our internet, the wood wide web also has a dark side. Plants that are unable to photosynthesise (normal process of plant food production using sunlight, water and carbon dioxide) can steal carbon from neighbouring trees. In the fight for survival and the battle for valuable resources like light and soil, some plants will also release harmful chemicals into the surrounding soil to hinder the growth of surrounding plants and thereby reduce competition for these valuable resources. 

Saved by the mushroom

This is just a short introduction into the world of fungi and I hope it illustrates the critical importance of this organism to humans and the overall health of the planet. To exemplify this fact, even the US Department of Defense include mushrooms in their BioShield programme and are investigating whether they can be used against biological warfare. Pretty cool right?

In my next Wilde Life Guide blog post I will be sharing my mushroom secrets with you, how I incorporate these amazing little organisms into my diet to harness their healing powers. 

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