Our family spent a few hours last weekend hiking through a local wildlife preserve. Though we saw a few Northern Flickers (and more than a few chipmunks gathering acorns), it wasn’t the animal wildlife that interested us… it was the ‘wild’ life growing on fallen tree trunks and covering rocks along the path we followed.
Fungi are a kingdom of organisms which includes rusts, smuts, molds, mildews, mushrooms, and yeast. They gain energy by secreting enzymes that decompose other biological tissues. Fungi are divided into three main groups with a fourth used informally:
- Zygomycota (molds)
- Ascomycota (yeasts and powdery mildews)
- Basidiomycota (mushrooms, puffballs etc.)
- Deuteromycota (used for imperfect fungi)
Fungi are important sources for antibiotics and industrial chemicals and they’re useful for things like fermenting beverages and bread dough… but they are most valuable to the gardener as soil builders. Fungi are experts at breaking down organic matter which is very important for soil renewal.
Because fungi can’t produce their own food (photosynthesis) they sometimes form symbiotic relationships with algae. The result is lichen, a growth often seen on rocks and tree trunks. The relationship between fungus and alga allows the lichen to act as a single organism that is photosynthetic. Not quite a plant, but not an animal either! Many lichens are a food source for wildlife, others are very sensitive to environmental changes and serve as monitors of air pollution.
Other fungi, like mushrooms form symbiotic relationships with tree roots. As the mushroom’s mycelia collect nutrients from far and wide and release them to the tree roots, the tree roots provide sugar (a result of photosynthesis) as energy for the mushrooms to grow. One example of such a relationship is the much-savored truffle (an underground mushroom) and the oak, chestnut, and beech tree roots on which they grow.
Most fungi, unlike this big one is growing in our yard, aren’t visible to the naked eye. Even so, there are well over a thousand species present in a native soil sample at one time; their vegetative filaments spreading out, intersecting and forming colonies working to decompose organic matter and release nutrients. The effect? Humus: a nutrient-rich, fertile, sustainable addition for building healthy, balanced soil that supports plant growth… which in turn attracts insects, birds and other wildlife.
And we thought they were just pretty!
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