After crazy driving all day, including a little side trip down to Hartford to see my sister- and brother-in-law’s new house and deliver a big gold mirror and old picture, and pick up an electric mower for my dad, and getting lost in downtown Hartford (plenty of signs for 91 South, but none for North), I got up to the conference just before 8. Registration had closed so I went into the main ballroom (packed with people) to hear Paul Stamets lay it down with regard to mushrooms.
I first heard about Paul at my first permaculture class, where I learned that mycelium networks communicate ecological information across great distances, distribute nutrients among plants across species, even to the point of moving growth from a damaged side of a forest to the other side. So my expectations were high and Stamets gave an outrageous talk on the many amazing qualities of fungi.
Here’s a link to a partial version of Paul’s talk.
First, he told us about Amadou (coincidentally I’ve been listening to Amadou et Mariam), a mushroom with historical roots, as it was used to carry fire from one place to another. Paradoxically, when boiled in water, Amadou mycelium are highly flamable and were used in Europe to create firearms.
Then he described a symbiotic relationship with a fungus and grasses allowing them to grow in 160 degree water at Yellowstone. He showed old growth forest with baby hemlocks on the floor thriving, although there was insufficient light for photosynthesis; they were being “fed” by mycelium in guild with alder and birch trees. Recently an aquatic gilled mushroom has been discovered. We have identified only 10% of the estimated 150,000 species and a theme of the talk was “how little do we know.”
Mushrooms are similar to humans in that we both inhale O2 and exhale CO2. Fungi have generally anti-bacterial properties, and as they de-compose they specifically select bacteria essential to plant growth. Mycelium nets contain bladders that hold and transport water over great distances. The largest organism on earth, a honey mushroom covering over 2200 acres was shown from aerial photos.
Mycelium networks form a highly optimized, redundant network structure, and behave like neurons: as information or chemistry is passed along a network path it grows in capacity. The information appears to batch and pulse and this was shown in a microscopic movie of transmission along mycelium nets. Fungi have been shown to have survived, indeed been sole survivors of two previous extinction events.
Then, Stamets got into some very interesting practical applications. First off, mycelium remediation of hydrocarbon-poluted soil, which reduced hydrocarbon counts from 20,000 ppm (2%) to around 200 ppm over the course of 8 weeks. This experiment used oyster mushroom. He mentioned the fungal production of enzymes cellulase and lignase which are effective at breaking down wood and cellulose, then later showed a bottle of “myconol” lit and burning as a candle.
He pointed out that mushrooms are hyper-accumulators of heavy metals, so the oysters growing in the old hydrocarbon-polluted dirt are no good for eating, but you can create more mycelium by taking the base of the mushroom and rolling it in the ubiquitous material cardboard. In fact sheet mulching is so effective because it creates conditions very favorable to mycelium, which by the way are favored by earthworms. Stamets scoured the literature but found no science published on preferences of earthworms for mycellated vs. non-mycellated material, so he conducted his own experiments.
Then he showed a filtering system created from mycellated woodchips stuffed into burlap sacks and used to create a swale on contour. This was very effective in reducing e coli in runoff from farms into waterways.
Perhaps the most amazing story he told was when he was asked by a National Geographic photographer to gather a very rare garcon [sp?] mushroom which only appears in Douglas Fir snags in old growth. They were out on a boat in Desolation Inlet, BC looking along the shore for evidence of this rare fungus. After several hours the photographer asked about a Haida pictograph site and they went to visit and found garcon growing right there. The shape had a strange Venus of Willendorf resemblance. Later it was discovered that Haida artifacts in museums were carved not from wood but from garcon.
There was some more about the anti-tubercular qualities of this particular mushroom and the great medical benefits of using mushroom products that are not only anti-viral but anti-bacterial as well; most deaths from viral infections are caused by the follow-on bacterial infections. He also patented a process for eliminating carpenter ants and termites using mycelium.
For me, though, the real kicker was the idea of “packaging” seeds and mycelium in innoculated cardboard. This has great guerilla gardening potential, can use the mail system, etc. He showed a baby “old growth” forest of hemlock, birch, cedar grown this way.
I don’t think anyone minded that Stamets went on for about a half hour longer than scheduled and he received an standing O for his great work. It was an amazing kick off to the conference.