For less than a tenner, do as I do: buy a hand lens, head outside and discover fungi and moulds lighting up the darkness
The profound therapeutic benefits of connecting with nature and spending time outside are well known. But in winter? When it’s cold, gloomy and everything looks dead? In fact, especially in the winter, when we are susceptible to fatigue, illness and seasonal low mood. And actually there is plenty of life, beauty and wonder right outside our doors, if we look closely.
Come and take a short walk with me in my nearest wild patch – an urban cemetery, a common environment across the British Isles. Continue reading
Over our nearly dozen years linking to stories we have shared plenty of what we have called lost and found stories (including this and this and this, and this), as well as fungi stories too numerous to link back to, this is the first lost and found fungi story:
The sighting of a ‘magnificent’ specimen of the Amanita sculpta, not seen in Singapore for 80 years, shows how the public can aid in conservation efforts
We have linked to one Katherine J. Wu article in the past, and that was to share good news; and we linked to stories about humongous fungus a couple of times–not so much news as fascinating; this time there is an ominous implication to the fungus:
Human actions have turned a usually beneficial fungus into a bringer of death.
Deep in the loamy soil of forests around the world, there exists a fungus called the honey mushroom that makes its living on death. A parasite that preys on weak trees, it sucks its victims dry of nutrients, then feasts on their postmortem flesh. Continue reading
The Valdivian Coastal Reserve was mentioned once in our pages, only in passing.
Strange, because if I was asked to name my favorite protected area on the planet it would be at or near the top of my list. The abundant but threatened alerce trees were part of the reason. A family story would explain more of why, and that is part of a larger work story that needs more attention another time.
The story below, featuring an adjacent protected area, stirs an intense place memory, and at the same time reveals much about a topic that was not on our radar at the time. And it says much about potential futures for that place. So, thanks to the New York Times climate correspondent Somini Sengupta (again and again) as well as photographer Tomás Munita:
In the fight against warming, a formidable ally hides just beneath our feet.
ALERCE COSTERO NATIONAL PARK, Chile — Toby Kiers took long strides across the spongy forest floor, felt the adrenaline rush in her veins and stopped at the spot she had traveled so far to reach. Into the ground went a hollow metal cylinder. Out came a scoop of soil.
Dr. Kiers stuck her nose into the dirt, inhaled its scent, imagined what secrets it contained to help us live on a hotter planet. “What’s under here?” she asked. “What mysteries are we going to unveil?”
The soil was deposited into a clear plastic bag, then labeled with the coordinates of this exact location on Earth. Continue reading
Thanks to Milo‘s interest in fungi, which we found infectious, we learned years ago what the world’s largest living thing is. We used to feature more stories from Atlas Obscura, but this is the first in a few years:
In Oregon, the Humongous Fungus plays a complex role in an ecosystem reshaped by humans.
UNDER THE BLUE MOUNTAINS OF Oregon lurks something massive and prehistoric. Yet the largest recorded organism on Earth, weighing more than 200 blue whales and dwarfing even Pando, Utah’s famous grove of quaking aspens, is nearly invisible to the untrained eye. It’s a single, genetically identifiable specimen of honey mushroom, or Armillaria ostoyae, that has been growing for thousands of years. Continue reading
We featured three articles by Fiona Harvey, Environment correspondent for the Guardian, each in 2016 on quite different topics, and then we did not see her again until today. Our attention to fungi has been constant since Milo got the topic started in 2011, and SPUN’s mapping project counts as good news:
Project aims to help protect some of trillions of miles of the ‘circulatory system of the planet’
Vast networks of underground fungi – the “circulatory system of the planet” – are to be mapped for the first time, in an attempt to protect them from damage and improve their ability to absorb and store carbon dioxide. Continue reading
In the media we scan for articles and podcasts to share here, some of the last year’s attention to fungi has been aimed at making them seem less alien by celebrating their very alien-ness. Up to now, this has all been earth-bound, but maybe that has been an arbitrary boundary. Thanks to Scientific American magazine for this conversation with the man who has been stretching fungi boundaries for much longer than we have been paying attention:
Mycologist Paul Stamets discusses the potential extraterrestrial uses of fungi, including terraforming planets, building human habitats—and providing psilocybin therapy to astronauts
The list of mycologists whose names are known beyond their fungal field is short, and at its apex is Paul Stamets. Educated in, and a longtime resident of, the mossy, moldy, mushy Pacific Northwest region, Stamets has made numerous contributions over the past several decades— perhaps the best summation of which can be found in his 2005 book Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. But now he is looking beyond Earth to discover new ways that mushrooms can help with the exploration of space. Continue reading
Starting with Milo’s 2011 and 2012 posts, our attention to the wide-ranging topics related to fungi have been in the spirit of public service announcement. Scientific sometimes overlaps with culinary interest, and that intersection has motivated more than one post. Today, having noticed that this coffee-brewer on my desk looks inspired by the Pleurotus that just appeared on my screen, the motivation is aesthetic. Thanks to Helen Rosner, whose sense of wonder has pointed me to a publication that is likely already known by our fungi-focused friends, and well suited to broaden the appeal:
A zine by the photographer Phyllis Ma presents fungi in all their alien glory.
John Cage, the avant-garde composer, was also a passionate mushroom forager. In his 1954 essay “Music Lovers’ Field Companion,” he wrote about his habit of going into the woods and “conducting performances of my silent piece”—his most famous work, “4’33”,” in which ambient sounds are the only music—while attempting to identify nearby fungi. “The more you know them, the less sure you feel about identifying them,” Cage said, almost three decades later, in a conversation with the French musician Daniel Charles.
“Each one is itself. Each mushroom is what it is—its own center. It’s useless to pretend to know mushrooms. They escape your erudition.” I thought of Cage’s comments while paging through the third and most recent volume of “Mushrooms & Friends,” a photography zine by the artist Phyllis Ma. It is a mostly wordless publication, filled with Ma’s saturated, otherworldly images of mushrooms, many of which she gathers on foraging expeditions through the same upstate New York woods that enraptured Cage more than a half century ago.
Thanks to Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield at the Guardian for this podcast episode about the wonders and perils of fungi-identifying:
…We often talk as if we know what species exist in the world – but we don’t. Continue reading
Growing edible fungi at home is easier than you might have thought:
Easy to grow, visually beautiful and oodles of fabulous fungi for breakfast, what’s not to love?
Selling home grown mushrooms – through bags small enough to sit on your kitchen countertop, filled with organic matter like grain or coffee grounds and inoculated with spores – has been Michael Crowe’s business since 2017. He enjoys hearing from happy customers, who sometimes send him updates on their progress. “It’s just so cool because it can bring together people of all ages, from all walks of life and people all over the place can grow food and have a really good time learning about it,” he says. Continue reading
Insect-destroying fungi ‘may represent the next frontier for drug discovery’
Two new fungi species that infect flies and eject spores out of a large hole in the insect’s abdomen “like small rockets” have been discovered in Denmark.
The new species, Strongwellsea tigrinae and Strongwellsea acerosa, are host-specific and rely on two species of Danish fly – Coenosia tigrina and Coenosia testacea, according to researchers at the University of Copenhagen. Continue reading
The Science section of the Guardian’s website has an article profiling an author and his new book (click above to find the book on the author’s website) that relate to a topic we care about as much as any we post about on this platform.
When Amie and Milo and I moved to Kerala, India in 2010 it was ostensibly for the sake of our client. But it was also for Milo. He was 16 years-old with a strong interest in mycology, and was motivated to translate his knowledge into practice. Within the first year he set up a small farming operation for culinary mushrooms.
He was adept at explaining the importance of complex networks like those in the image to the left, and made me a believer: the future is fungal, for culinary, medicinal, and bio-remediation purposes. When restoration of this coffee farm started, I built a berm with logs at the core, expecting a mycelium network to develop, creating a healthy border for the shade trees planted.
These days Milo has his own forest tract to continue these pursuits and I keep a lookout for related stories of interest. Merlin Sheldrake has my full attention today:
The study of fungi has long been overshadowed by more glamorous scientific quests. But biologist Merlin Sheldrake is on a mission to change that
As a boy, Merlin Sheldrake really loved the autumn. In the garden of his parents’ house – he grew up a few moments from Hampstead Heath, which is where he and I are walking right now, on an overcast summer morning – the leaves would fall from a big chestnut tree, forming gentle drifts into which he liked nothing more than to hurl himself. Wriggling around until he was fully submerged, Sheldrake would lie there, quite content, “buried in the rustle, lost in curious smells”. As he writes in his wondrous new book, Entangled Life, these autumnal piles were both places to hide and worlds to explore. Continue reading
It is reassuring to wake up on a Monday morning and read an essay like the one below. Books are still being published. Check. Fungi are still worthy of book-length attention. Check. Book reviews continue. Check. Kind of like yesterday it was a pleasure to know that bioluminescence continues its mysterious ways, and people are still finding ways to be amused by that. The number of articles we have posted here since 2011 about fungi is many times more than about bioluminescence, and our readers demonstrate a greater interest in this subject as well. A book as valuable as this one sounds like from the review should not suffer from an untimely publication date.
One of the minor accompanying pleasures following the reading of this essay is a quick investigation that shows there is a bookshop in the Five Points neighborhood of Atlanta, GA and its counterpart in Athens, GA where you can order the book. Our view is that when you can support an independent bookshop you should, for so many reasons. Thanks to Avid for being there, and to Hua Hsu for this:
They shape the world—and offer lessons for how to live in it.
In 1957, a man from New York named R. Gordon Wasson published an article in Life about two trips he had taken, three decades apart. The first was to the Catskills, in New York, where his wife, Valentina, took a rambling walk in the woods and became enamored of some wild mushrooms. “She caressed the toadstools,” Wasson recalled, “savored their earthy perfume.” She brought them home to cook, and soon he, too, was enchanted. They spent the next thirty years studying and cataloguing various species, searching out literary and artistic works about mushrooms.
According to Wasson, the world is divided into mycophiles and mycophobes. Reverence might take a variety of forms—think of Eastern Europe or Russia, where foraging is a pastime. There’s a famous scene in “Anna Karenina,” in which a budding romance withers during a mushroom hunt. Wasson was particularly interested in societies that venerated the fungus for spiritual reasons. In Mexico, wild mushrooms were thought to possess “a supernatural aura.” Continue reading
Fungi first appeared in our pages thanks to Milo. And the name of the essayist below was mentioned a couple times earlier as well. He deserves more attention, especially if his attention is focused on bees:
We might be able to save honeybees from viruses transmitted by invasive parasites without chemical treatment.
By Paul Stamets
Mr. Stamets is a mycologist.
Sometime in the 1980s, microscopic mites that had been afflicting honeybees outside the United States found their way to Florida and Wisconsin and began wreaking havoc across the country. These parasites have invaded and decimated wild and domestic bee colonies. Along with other dangers facing bees, like pesticides and the loss of forage lands, the viruses these mites carry threaten the bees we rely on to pollinate many of the fruits, nuts and vegetables we eat. Continue reading
Thanks to Redhouse Studio and the Guardian’s Laura Dorwart for this story:
Could a process that uses mycelium to help recycle old buildings into new ones solve the problem of the city’s many abandoned homes?
Over 7,000 abandoned or condemned homes litter the urban landscape of Cleveland, Ohio, where a stunning population loss of about 100,000 residents in 25 years and widespread foreclosures have sparked a housing crisis marked by growing racial and economic disparities. Posing concerns in terms of economic stability, public health and safety, the abandoned homes that line many of the city’s streets are at once symbols of its resilience and ongoing obstacles to growth and prosperity.
Cleveland native Christopher Maurer, founder and principal architect at local humanitarian design firm Redhouse Studio and adjunct professor at Kent State University, has plenty of ideas about how to address the city’s complex challenges.
Thanks to Menaka Wilhelm:
An imagined conversation between two yeast cells appears in Kurt Vonnegut’s 1973 novel Breakfast of Champions. “They were discussing the possible purposes of life,” Vonnegut writes. If that’s not absurd enough, their existential discussion takes place against a weird, dismal backdrop, “as they ate sugar and suffocated in their own excrement.” Little did they know, their little yeasty lives had an important, human-centric purpose. “Because of their limited intelligence, they never came close to guessing that they were making champagne.” Continue reading
We’ve been highlighting mycological innovation since the early days of this site, and our enthusiasm has yet to wane. The range of fungi-power will never cease to amaze.
Fighting Climate Change,
One Laundry Load at a Time
A Danish biotechnology company is trying to fight climate change — one laundry load at a time. Its secret weapon: mushrooms like those in a dormant forest outside Copenhagen.
In the quest for a more environmentally friendly detergent, two scientists at the company, Novozymes, regularly trudge through the mud, hunting for oyster mushrooms that protrude from a fallen beech or bracken fungi that feast on tough plant fibers. They are studying the enzymes in mushrooms that speed up chemical reactions or natural processes like decay.
“There is a lot going on here, if you know what to look for,” said Mikako Sasa, one of the Novozymes scientists.
Their work is helping the company develop enzymes for laundry and dishwasher detergents that would require less water, or that would work just as effectively at lower temperatures. The energy savings could be significant. Washing machines, for instance, account for over 6 percent of household electricity use in the European Union.
Enlisting enzymes to battle dirt is not a new strategy. Over thousands of years, mushrooms and their fungi cousins have evolved into masters at nourishing themselves on dying trees, fallen branches and other materials. They break down these difficult materials by secreting enzymes into their hosts. Even before anyone knew what enzymes were, they were used in brewing and cheese making, among other activities. Continue reading
The Science section of the New York Times is a dependable source of occasionally brilliant ecological findings (amidst the more common overdoses of dark and dreary news) and this one helps start a new week on solid ground:
A new genetic analysis reveals the tactics that helped fungi in the Armillaria genus get so good at expanding and killing host plants.
Thousands of years ago, two microscopic spores spawned and created a monster. It grew — up to three feet a year — sending out dark, gnarly, threadlike organs called rhizomorphs that explored the subterranean darkness, foraging for food. Now it’s a nebulous body, a tangled mat beneath the Oregon soil that occupies an area the size of three Central Parks and may weigh as much as 5,000 African elephants.
Its scientific name is Armillaria ostoyae, but you can call it The Humongous Fungus. It’s the largest known terrestrial organism on the planet, according to the United States Forest Service.
Thanks again to Stephanie Strom for a story about ecology that surprises:
For the environmentally conscious eater, they are among the most inconvenient truths: Too much food goes to waste. Too much packaging comes with the food. And too much of the packaging is made to last for ages.
Now there may be a single answer to all three problems: using excess food to make the packaging. Continue reading
Thanks to the salt, at National Public Radio (USA) for their sharing the creepy- crawliest news from the realm of mycologists working on clean solutions to some massive, dirty challenges, and changing the rules of pest management along the way:
When it comes to biopesticides, one of the most widely used fungi is Beauveria bassiana. Above, a kudzu bug killed by Beauveria bassiana, seen growing out of the cadaver. Continue reading