The damp coastal weather invites an incredible variety of fungal flowers (otherwise known as mushrooms) to pop up everywhere. Though mushrooms grow in soil and were originally believed to be an offshoot of the plant kingdom, recent studies have shown that most fungi are more closely related to animals than plants. They can’t photosynthesize (a requirement if you’re a plant) and depend on the food made by plants for their nutritional requirements, the way we do. Around 90% of land plants are in mutually-beneficial relationships with fungi through mycorrhizal associations where plants provide fungi with food in the form of carbohydrates and fungi help plants take up water, provide nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen, protect them from predators and boost their immunity. Indeed many of our beloved ecosystems, including our farmlands are dependent upon this relationship of reciprocity between plants and fungi.
It is strange to think that so much of the biomass of a mushroom we pick is underground. The cute little stuffed white button mushroom you nibble at the buffet table has a relative that occupies some 2,384 acres (nearly 4 square miles!) of soil in Oregon’s Blue Mountains. Based on the growth rate of this Armillaria ostoyae it’s estimated to be 2,400 years old but could be as ancient as 8,650 years, which would earn it a place among the oldest living organisms as well as the largest. So what do fantastic fungal fruiting bodies have to share with us? Besides their high mineral and protein content, they have chemicals that support our immunity and prevent cellular damage. They also remind us of how sharing resources and deepening our relationships, can build a sustainable community – that our beautiful displays of individuality are rooted in the common ground of all life that abundantly supports our being here. The simple act of connecting with our neighbors and cultivating communication despite our differences not only enhances the quality of life, but can save a life too. As you wander the forests this winter, imagine the “wood-wide-web” under your feet and how even the weight of your step is an interaction with a living creature. As you carefully pick, cook and enjoy eating these delicate winter fruits, do so with reverence for the complexity life presents and the gifts it brings.