Fungus Among Us factoids
This weekend is the Whistler Naturalists’ 18th annual Fungus Among Us event—and we are going virtual this year with a Fantastic Fungi Photo Contest, Talks with Gurus and Cooking and Preserving Wild Mushrooms (details at end of article) on offer.
To get everyone excited we thought we’d share some factoids we’ve learned since our first event.
Mushrooms have personalities
Some things happen each fall, like falling leaves and rain. Mushrooms aren’t so predictable. During our second year, for example, we found 132 different species of mushrooms of which only 31 were repeats from the first year.
This variability has repeated itself since. Some years the woods are bursting with almost every sort of mushrooms. Others are dominated by Tricholomas (including pine mushrooms), or cobweb-veiled Cortinarius species, or by boletes such as slippery jack. Chanterelles might be plentiful some years and rare as hens’ teeth in others. Plentiful or scarce, there’s always something interesting to find.
Mushrooms are people too …
…Or at least closer than they are to plants. Back in the 1700s, Linnaeus classified all life into only two kingdoms: animals and plants. This worldview persisted until 1969 when fungi were finally recognized in their own kingdom. While scientists still debate how many kingdoms there are, fungi have kept their place as a separate kingdom more closely related to animals than plants.
It makes sense that fungi are more like us since only plants can transform the sun’s energy into food through photosynthesis. Like us, fungi have to get their energy either from a plant or something that’s eaten a plant.
What are all those mushrooms doing in our Whistler woods?
Many mushrooms in coniferous forests are attached to tree roots. Like other plants, trees create sugars through photosynthesis. The trees share those sugars with the fungi through their roots and the fungi use the sugars to, among other things, construct the fruiting bodies (mushrooms) that spread their spores. In return, the fungi deliver water and nutrients back to the tree. Most mushrooms in our woods need trees and most of our trees need mushrooms.
Other mushrooms are decomposers, which means they are like living garbage disposals. When something dies, the decomposers take over from there. Without them, dead trees and other organisms would pile so high that the living trees would be completely covered, and the nutrients within dead organisms would be locked away so new trees wouldn’t be able to grow. Decomposer fungi live right on their food, so look for them on tree trunks, on seed cones or fallen leaves.
How trees talk to each other
It’s recently been shown that fungal filaments (mycorrhizae) can provide a conduit that links two or more trees. Suzanne Simard at UBC has a popular TED.com talk (“How trees talk to each other”) that provides a fascinating insight into these linkages. She has even found that a tree is more likely to pass nutrition to trees related to it (which she calls mother and daughter trees, respectively).
Virtual Fungus Among Us this weekend: Friday (7 p.m.): Talks by gurus and winners of the Fantastic Fungi Photo Contest announced. Saturday (4 to 6 p.m.): Cooking and Preserving Wild Mushrooms with Chef Bruce Worden. Both events online. Watch live on our Facebook Page or via Zoom. More details at whistlernaturalists.ca.
Written by: Bob Brett & Kristina Swerhun