The 1661 Cemetery is literally carpeted in mushrooms these days. Their mystical stature seems to add to the sheer spookiness of our historic old cemetery, with its dark slate tombstones as Halloween approaches. One wonders if they are actually growing up out of the old ancient corpses long decomposed in the soil. Or maybe they are up to some sinister mission decaying the century old trees living there.
Actually, the real story is one of symbiosis, growth and life. The carpet of mushrooms is actually helping the trees grow.
In fact, pine trees cannot grow without the help of the vast network of mycelia, minute threads of fungal tissue that comprises the fungus organism itself, that the mushrooms spread out in the soil.
Ninety five percent of all plants, trees and even grasses in the world have fungal relationships. Despite what you may have been taught in grade school, trees are very ineffective at getting water or nutrients out of the soil while mushrooms are masters at it. Fungi emit enzymes which allow them to absorb minerals like phosphorous and nitrogen from the soil which they then transfer to the trees. Eighty percent of the water and minerals that trees use during the year come from fungi, while the trees give back around 30 percent of the sugars that they produce via photosynthesis.Mushrooms are the primary reason whyf orests can survive droughts because their vast mycelial network reaches out far and wide in the soil.Most surprisingly,it has been discovered that some trees even help other trees to survive.
Most surprisingly, it has been discovered that some trees even help other trees to survive. Douglas Fir help young birch trees in the spring by supplying them sugars while being paid back in the fall by the birches who have then fully leafed-out Trout Lillys, which are among the first plants to produce leaves in the spring, have been found to help young maple saplings who will soon be shaded over by their mature parent maple trees. The mature maples later pay back the lillys by giving them sugar in the fall to expand their root systems. An even more exotic example is how some bean plants, being attacked by aphids, signal through the mycelial network to other bean plants to produce an enzyme which attracts aphid-eating wasps to come and save the day. The real heroes here, and the hardest workers, are the fungi. This vast mycelial network has been referred to as the “Wood Wide Web,” a term coined by Nature magazine about 30 years ago.
The 1661 Cemetery has large “fruitings” right now of Russula species (Brittle Gills, as the British like to call them), Lactarius species (Milky Caps), Suillus species (from the Porcini family), and plenty of Amanita species, the yellow ones that look like the famous Mario Brothers mushrooms. What is going on in our cemetery is a vast cooperation network of sustenance and life, and it should provide a bit of joy, rather than fear, as we go trick-or-treating in the coming weeks.
Gary Gilbert teaches mushrooms locally and through the Boston Mycological Club. He is also the originator of Mycocards.com, flashcards for learning mushrooms.