by Paul Gaylon
Many of us have collected edible wild mushrooms, such as boletus, chanterelle, oyster, or puff ball, and enjoyed how they add richness to various dishes. But mushrooms offer so much more than tasty additions to our cooking. They are highly nutritious and help keep our bodies healthy in a number of ways; in fact, we could call them health multipliers. It is best that we understand a little about mushrooms as a life form, to start with, as this will clue us in to their many health benefits. What we commonly know of as mushrooms (the “fruiting body” that we collect, as stem and cap) is only part of the story of the complete mushroom organism; this part of the mushroom is but the reproductive stage. Mushrooms are, first of all, fungi, and are radically different than green plants; they are able, for one, to create their own special soil chemistry.
We almost always see mushrooms only in their ephemeral form. We find them popping up seemingly overnight, and then in a short, few days they can die out. But the body of the mushroom grows far more extensively than we realize, because most of the mushroom’s life cycle is invisible to us, taking place beneath the ground, within the soil. It is there that extremely fine, microscopic threads form mat-like networks called “mycelium.” These networks of mycelia are the growth stage of the mushroom, and can extend in a range far beyond the visible mushroom that we find above ground. These networks can spread, for example, throughout a forest, biochemically interacting in crucial ways with all the forest’s plants and trees. They can spread to hundreds, or even thousands, of acres. Mycelia are in constant living interaction with their environment. They are very sensitive, registering all manner of soil activities. Above all, they are decomposers. They exude special, potent, extracellular compounds—types of acids and enzymes—(which, in themselves, have high nutritional value), that break down complex dead plant matter, including wood, into simpler, nutrient components. These compounds are also anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal. All of these nutrients, freed into the soil, enrich the soil to the benefit of living plants and trees. The mycelia also absorb the decomposed nutrients for their own growth. This whole process, unique to mushrooms, is essential to soil ecology; without mycelia, soils would literally lose their life force, becoming but a layer of dead matter.