No matter what that rustling outside your tent at night might imply, fungus is usually the creepiest thing lurking in the woods. Fleshy and often found feeding on dead things, these life forms aren’t plant or animal, and they can definitely kill you. Plus, that gorgeous, stalactite-looking bear’s head tooth fungus pictured above? It’s edible—and it tastes like crab meat. Hell, there’s a mushroom called the mealy tooth that bleeds. But creepy things are fascinating; oddness is, in fact, the root of creepiness. And mushrooms have so much more to offer than that box of baby bella creminis at Trader Joe’s would have you believe.
So even if foraging doesn’t excite you, next time you’re hiking through the woods, pay attention. There’s a story behind every mushroom you see. Whether they’re psychedelic, deadly, taste like fried chicken (this is a real thing!), hold the cure for cancer or HIV (also a real field of scientific study), or just have a wonderfully co-dependent relationship with the Doug fir they’re nestled under, learning more about fungus can open up the outdoors in a massive way. Because when I’m adventuring, knowing something about the flora and fauna means I can engage with more than just pretty views.
The study of mushrooms is called mycology, and—quick primer—all mushrooms are fungi, but not all fungi are mushrooms. Think of mushrooms as similar to the fruit of a plant: they’re a vessel for spores that act much like seeds or pollen. The rest of the fungal organism typically lives in the soil, wood, or other material from which the mushroom sprouted, and that part, consisting of thread-like strands, is the mycelium. Now that we’ve got that straightened out, here are five awesome things you might not know about mushrooms.
Orchids need fungi to survive—and so do Douglas firs and blueberry bushes
Certain fungi and plants are so co-dependent you won’t find one species without the other, which I find exceedingly charming. The unique relationship, either a mycorrhizal or a myco-heterotrophic relationship, isn’t parasitic; it’s symbiotic. These plant-fungi relationships are intimate, cell-to-cell exchanges of helpful nutrients. For instance, when an orchid goes to seed, none of those little guys are going to survive unless they happen to land in a patch of soil that’s also home to some friendly fungus. That fungus helps the orchid, which can’t use photosynthesis in the early phases of its life cycle, get nutrients from the soil. The cross-species life partnership has led me to believe that creepy mushrooms can also be cute.
The largest living organism on earth is a deadly honey fungus 2.5 miles across
The massive fungus, known officially as armillaria ostoyae, lives in eastern Oregon’s Malheur National Forest, and it’s 2,400 years old. The size of the organism may be a result of the area’s dry climate, which limits the number of other spores able to take up residence in the area. The humongous fungus (sorry) feeds on helpless trees with long, black tentacles, or, more scientifically, its rhizomorphs. The rhizomorphs reach depths of 10 feet and invade the forest’s root systems, starving the trees of their nutrients and causing mass die-off. (This relationship is most definitely not mycorrhiza, and thus falls squarely in the category of “creepy” cool mushrooms, rather than “cute” cool mushrooms.) The mushrooms aren’t deadly to humans, though—the golden honey mushrooms that pop up in the fall are, apparently, delicious when pan-fried with a little butter and garlic.
Magic mushrooms? They’re only sorta illegal
Ok, ok. Psychedelic mushrooms are pretty darn illegal in the United States. But you can buy spores for psychedelic strains on the internet, and I don’t mean on the deep web. Like, you just have to Google it. Spores don’t contain psychoactive chemicals (specifically, the Schedule I drugs psilocin and psilocybin), which means they aren’t controlled substances. They’re only explicitly illegal in Georgia, Idaho, and California. That said, “intent to sell” magic mushrooms can land you in jail. So don’t get too loophole-happy.
Fungi could solve the problem of nuclear waste and other environmental ills
Mycoremediation is a fancy word for fungi’s capacity to aid in the sequestration or decomposition of hazardous materials like heavy metals and nuclear waste. Renowned mycologist Paul Stamets has dedicated much of his career to exploring how mushrooms can eat up contaminants in our environment. He’s an advocate for using fungi to clean up nuclear waste and radiation-ravages sites. Certain variations of fungi thrive in radioactive environments, like the common slimy spike-cap mushroom, which can absorb huge quantities of the radioactive element cesium 137 through melanin (similar to how humans absorb the sun). Stamets has also found that the common oyster mushroom, which you likely could find at your local grocery store, likes to feast on oil spills. Once the ‘shrooms eat up the dangerous stuff, they can harmlessly decompose back into the soil from whence they came.
Mushrooms are responsible for the health of pretty much the whole planet.
In case you haven’t gathered this by now, mushrooms are crucial to just about any ecosystem that isn’t totally ice-bound (though they have been found in Antarctica). From helping plants thrive to decomposing organic matter back into fertile soil, to providing essential nutrition to animal species (including humans), fungus is always hard at work. Stamets put it best when talking to Mother Earth News:
Mushrooms and their mycelium guard the ecosystem, connect food chains, and are one of the primary pillars of the food web — recycling nutrients and playing a critical role in keeping the forests and fields healthy. Mushrooms and their mycelium are quiet allies that are essential for our healthy existence. They are enigmatic, have a sense of humor, and socially as well as spiritually, bond together all that admire them. They have much to teach us.
Photo by Abbie Barronian