Why fungi are your new best friends

What does this often maligned kingdom provide for the world?
31 October 2023

Interview with 

Emily Robinson


A selection of fungi from the fungi walk


So where to start in our Halloween redemption arc? Well, you can’t have a proper witches brew without a few toadstools. Fungi have been long heralded as a sign of death and decay in the natural world. And, whilst that is true, it plays into the absolutely essential processes that this incredibly diverse group of organisms perform. To learn more, Will Tingle and James Tytko went into London to meet their field guide...

Emily - Hi, I'm Emily and we're going on a walk through Streatham Common Woods. I'm a wildlife educator and I like to help connect people with their green spaces.

Will - First and foremost, James, I'm going to serve you up this potentially mean question off the cuff. Do you think a fungus is a plant or an animal?

James - Now Will, what do you take me for? I know it's neither. I did a little bit of reading before we came out. I'm not going to claim to be an expert, but I'm pretty sure that was a trick question.

Emily - So actually fungi are their own kingdom. They used to be classified as plants and only actually got their own kingdom in around the 1950s. So way back when we used to classify things as either animals and anything that wasn't an animal was classified as a plant. Whereas now we know that they're their own kingdom and actually fungi are more closely related to humans than they are to plants.

James - I dunno about you, but I've come here today with a kind of preconception that fungi are in some way dangerous or I feel like I've been warded away from them by my parents, by other adults as I was growing up. Is that a justified reaction? Should we be careful around them or is that phobia by definition irrational?

Emily - I think a lot of people are scared of fungi because they don't really know what fungi do. I definitely walk around a lot hearing parents screaming at their kids not to touch mushrooms. Funnily enough though, you can touch all the mushrooms that you find. Even the poisonous ones are only really harmful if you ingest them. Whereas touching them is absolutely fine. Nothing's going to happen to you.

Will - I don’t know about you, but I think we should go and find some.

James - I'm very excited. Let's get going.

Will - That looks gross.

James - <laugh>. We're here to extol the virtues. <laugh>. That's what I envisage when I think of a mushroom, that brown toadstooly type. What am I looking at here?

Emily - So this fungus is called oak loving collybia. I quite like it because it jiggles and I really recommend if you're getting into fungi, to use all your senses. A lot of people smell fungi as well. Different fungi have really distinct odours. Some are just generally mushroomy.

James - Yeah, <laugh>

Will - Smells like soil. Why is that?

James - Are these ones edible?

Emily - No, I'm not a foraging expert. So I know a bit about the edibility of mushrooms, but in general I tend to not go down that route. Just because I find it a bit easier and I'm more interested in their roles in ecosystems

Will - As something very near and dear to my heart. You do mention the ecosystem and fungi play no small part in keeping that ecosystem up and running.

Emily - It's true. They do many things. I think primarily just decaying organic matter like leaf litter. They also break down parts of trees. So you have things like lignin, which is quite hard to break down, and they're the only things that are able to do that. So without fungi, we would just have wood everywhere. And breaking down wood is such an important thing, not just on dead trees, but living trees as well. So as trees get older, it's really important for the fungi to come in and basically rot out the centre of the wood. And as they decay wood, it sort of becomes an ecosystem engineer in that it will create hollows for owls to move in. Woodpeckers can then have it. Beetles start moving in. And you find that the tree, because of the fungi, becomes a hub of life in itself.

Will - We've gone this whole time without talking about the fact that it is the spooky season in Halloween and you've found some absolute corkers for us to talk about at such a topical time of the year.

Emily - So what we have here is dead man's fingers, Xylaria polymorpha. It's a really interesting fungus. I think it's called dead man's fingers because it's meant to look like a dead man's fingers coming out of his grave. A bit like in the Thriller music video. But actually dead man's fingers has a lot of medicinal uses. So in ancient Ayurvedic medicines, it encourages women to lactate.

James - Spoooooky.

Will - <laugh>

Emily - Super spooky <laugh>. And we've got some crystal brain on the other side of this log.

Will - I'm going to touch it.

Emily - Will does not like that.

Will - That is foul. That poor thing. It's just trying to do its job and we've come along, poked it and gone 'I hate that.'.

James - It looks like snot.

Will - We've just gone on about how, actually not all that much about mushrooms is toxic. However, what is this?

Emily - This is a cinnamon bracket. It is apparently the only known toxic polypore in Europe. It is a neurotoxin, so it contains about 40% polyprotic acid, which will cause irreversible damage to your nervous system, which is fantastic. And apparently if you ingest it, your pee turns purple.

Will - You can't just say that and not expect one of us to eat it. <laugh> James, you found an eyeball.

New Speaker - It's like a nipple <laugh>. I'm not afraid to say it.

Emily - These are collared earth stars. So I haven't picked them from the ground. They start off as balls and as it rains they basically unfurl open into this saucer shape and they push themselves off the ground. And what happens is when it rains, they'll release their spores from their spore sac. So it'll be like that. <Squeezes fungus and spores come out>

Will - Whoa.

James - It's like, if you can imagine pressing an old fashioned perfume bottle, it comes with that little...

Will - I feel like I've inhaled a lot of spores.

Emily - Actually, fungal spores are the highest organic matter that we inhale on a daily basis. Some fungal spores cause harm, but you've got to sort of be right with your nose in it while you puff it for it to go in. Some of them will cause lung disease, but actually fungal spores are so important and they actually help our clouds form, which then lead to rain. So when the water vapour is in the air, it needs something to condense against, to basically form clouds, which then cause it to rain, which is why there's so much rain and tropical ecosystems because the mushrooms and the clouds are forming this constant feedback loop.

Will - You've talked us through how great fungi are for the ecosystem, but far more important than that, I need them to be important to me. So apart from fungi as a food stuff, which they are increasingly more nowadays, what kind of benefits do we have that are gained from fungus that we perhaps don't even realise?

Emily - I think what a lot of people think of food fungi, they think of like fungi that you've literally directly cooked into meals. But fungi is incorporated into our day-to-day lives all the time. So yeast for rising bread, for example, fermenting of your beer, your classic penicillin, which has completely revolutionised human medicine. That is thanks to a fungus and a Petri dish. A lot of people report that it has completely changed the face of treatment, of mental illnesses. 6% of your medicinal fungi have some sort of like property in terms of anticarcinogenic properties. All great for the immune system. This is knowledge that's been around in a lot of traditional cultures for hundreds and hundreds of years that I think we really need to reconnect with our indigenous communities and bridge that barrier between the way we live and what they know of plants and fungi in general.

Will - Mm-Hmm. <affirmative> from the past to the future as well. Because fungi are apparently playing an astonishing role in not only the cleanup of toxic waste, but also plastic pollution as well.

Emily - Yeah. So mycoremediation or mycorestoration, as we know it, there's been lots of fungi that are able to break down toxins that we put into our environment such as pesticides, harmful chemicals. But as we know, there's so many fungi, millions of species yet to be discovered. So there could be loads of them that are able to do that. And it really emphasises how we should invest in mycology because a lot of the solutions to the problems we've created could very well be in that realm of science.

Will - The climate is warming. What can we expect in the future, do you think, to happen to worldwide fungal populations? And if it's bad news, is there any way we can help protect them?

Emily - Well, as we've discussed, fungi are so closely interlinked with the recycling of nutrients back into the ground, breaking down vegetation. And a big part of that is capturing carbon in soils through their affiliation with the trees. The plants aren't doing this alone. When we think of healthy ecosystems and forests that are able to be carbon sinks, that is due to the relationship that they have with the fungi. And so as a result, fungi is a really good indicator of soil health, which is so important for us in agriculture. Carbon sequestration, protecting fungi is pretty much hand in hand with fighting the climate crisis. So the biggest threat that fungi face is habitat loss, as with many of our species. So a major thing that we can do to help is sort of combat this need for tidiness that we tend to have as humans. Leaving more dead wood in place, incorporating dead deadwood into forestry management plans. Habitat loss isn't just a loss of woodland as well. Habitat loss is the degradation of our soils through agriculture. And we know that the more diverse soils are, the more we can sort of benefit out from agriculture in general as we move away from monocultures more into permacultures and also it holds the soil together so it prevents erosion, will reduce flooding, which is something that we're going to see more of as the climate crisis continues and we see more and more extreme weather events. So they're definitely really important to think about.


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