The Fungus Among Us

Every spring, several Stinkhorn mushrooms appear in the tree lawn on our block. They are repulsive-looking and smell bad, hence the name. A tall white shaft rises several inches through the soil, and becomes capped with a black, gelatinous tip, containing the spores. The rotten carrion stench attracts insects, and the the spores stick to them and are spread as they land elsewhere.

Like other mushrooms, and fungi in general, the stinkhorn mycelium, the part of the mushroom below ground and composed of a fine thread-like structure, decomposes wood and other organics. This action returns nutrients to the soil. We’re just learning the myriad uses of fungi and ways in which they can improve our environment.

Mushrooms form interesting and amazing shapes as they feed upon decaying structures. A walk in the woods reveals weird forms rising from the litter and fantastical shapes growing from dead trees and stumps. It’s not hard to understand why mushrooms in lore are the homes of fairies and elves — and have magical properties.

When I worked on the Navajo Reservation in the early 1970’s some mushroom were collected in the desert for pharmacological uses, mostly psychedelic. At the time, Carlos Casteneda was in vogue, advocating the freeing of one’s mind through the teachings of the ancient Toltecs, including the use of peyote. I guess I’ve always found life to be mystical enough without that experience.

I’ve also accompanied a mushroom-hunter friend in collecting large edible mushrooms in the mountains, and drying them for use throughout the winter. Once I had learned a little about edible mushrooms, I found a very distinctive coral mushroom when backpacking. I poured over the book I had brought, and concluded that no other mushroom looked similar. That night I first touched the mushroom to my lips to see if there was any reaction, and after a while, chewed a small amount. Later I ate a small piece and saw no ill effect. Feeling comfortable with its safety, the next morning I made a fresh mushroom omelette over the campfire. My companions worried about having to carry me off the mountain if I was wrong. I strongly advise against eating any wild mushroom without positive affirmation as to its safety, since death by poisoning is pretty terrible. But the good ones are pretty great.

Lately, however, we’ve learned a lot about the powers of mushrooms and fungi beyond flavor and nutrition. The ability of fungi to decompose all kinds of materials is being explored. In the field of bioremediation, fungi are found to be extremely effective in destroying many toxic wastes and pollutants. Specifically, the mushroom mycelium naturally attacks lignin and cellulose, and has been shown to successfully degrade similar organics, such as heavy oils. In combination with other bioremediation techniques, such as willow plantings, the mycelium has sped up the restoration of many contaminated sites. Different species are effective against different contaminants, and studies continue to refine the process. There’s even an “Infinity Burial Suit” being tested that is laced with mycelium and speeds decomposition of the human body after burial.

Mushroom beds are also being used to filter polluted stormwater. Mycofiltration uses fungal mats as biological filters to collect and eliminate organic materials from runoff. The result is a natural, low energy way to help clean up streams and rivers.

Similarly, certain mycelium have properties that make them toxic to insects, and are being developed as repellents or pesticides. Research has identified some strains that are effective in killing different viruses, and may ultimately be effective in flu remedies. One proposal has mycelium-containing mats used as floor coverings to continuously disinfect rooms.

Today, our major source of packaging materials is derived from petroleum at a significant energy and pollution cost. An alternative already developed uses a certain mycelium mixed with agricultural wastes, such as rice or oat hulls, to create a plastic-like material. Similar to styrofoam, this material can be molded into any shape with various selected properties related to elasticity, noise or shock absorbance, and others. Energy requirements are significantly less and the final product is recyclable and biodegradable. Some versions are suitable for building blocks and structures such as table tops.

By the way, it is reported that Stinkhorns are edible in their early stages of growth and actually favored by some Europeans. I’d like to go on record as just saying NO! to Stinkhorns. They’re scary enough out in the yard, much less on a dinner plate.

Additional information:, see Eben Bayer and Paul Stamets

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