There’s more to mushrooms than meets the eye. Some species provide psychedelic trips, some are delicious to eat, others just want to kill you. But did you know fungi can also survive in space, cure diseases, build things and help with the climate crisis?
The parts of mushrooms we see sticking out of the ground are actually the fruit of these organisms, but the most important part of fungus is mycelium; dense fibrous roots that live beneath the soil. A young woman in Nebraska named Katy Ayers has grown her own canoe (called Myconoe) with mycelium.
The canoe has a wooden skeleton, but the body of the canoe is all mushroom. It’s strong enough to take two people, took two weeks to grow, and is still alive, which means it fruits every time she takes it for a paddle.
If you build it they will spore
Mushrooms can be used to make household insulation, packaging, furniture, even leather.
They can replace plastic products and help clean up toxic waste and contaminated soil, especially after disasters like bushfires and oil-spills, by dealing with heavy metals and breaking down hydrocarbon-based waste.
Some architects and engineers are interested in building entire houses with fungi.
Size is certainly not a problem for mushrooms. In fact the largest single organism on the planet is a fungus in Oregon, which stretches ten square kilometres and may be more than 8,000 years old.
Mycorrhizal fungi species play a vital role in the carbon cycle too, by extracting nitrogen from soil and making it available to plants while slowing the growth of competing microbes.
For all these reasons and more, mycologists are urging government authorities to take mushrooms much more seriously. Unfortunately, many of these solutions and the people promoting them are still largely in the dark.
Eat your mushrooms
The fundamental weirdness of mushrooms (and threats to life if you eat the wrong species) hasn’t put humans and other animals off ingesting them over millennia. Antibiotics, beer and blue cheese all depend on them.
Edible mushroom species contain protein, fibre, selenium (important for the immune system), Vitamin D, antioxidants, and substances that assist in lowering cholesterol, protecting against cancer and even slowing neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. More info and links here. Don’t keep them in plastic though!
In a way, it seems a shame to just eat something so useful. If you’d like to learn more about how mushrooms can save the world, check out mushroom guru Paul Stamets on YouTube, or the National Geographic film ‘You Didn’t Know Mushrooms Could Do All This!’