Mushrooms, How Fungi Heals People and the Earth

For quite some years I have been fascinated with mushrooms. They are the fruiting body of fungi which forms a network in the ground and within decomposing organic matter like tree stumps, roots, old fallen limbs and logs, and throughout the whole of nature actually.

Mycelium forms the ‘body’ of fungi though it is made up of innumerable fine long hairs (hyphae) which criss-cross through soil and invade (beneficially) fine hair roots of plants. When the mycelium binds with a root of a plant, it is connected at a cellular level for the interchange of nutrients and communication. This incredible body of living fibrous matter draws from the soil and living or decomposing organic matter the nutrients which can then flow from one plant to another.

Mycelium is the internet of nature. It is also the transport system bringing nutrients along its tiny threads, which flow from plant to plant or from micro-organisms to plants, in any number of ways. Some species of fungi form the largest living organisms on the earth – thousands of acres across. Of all the micro-organisms in the soil, fungi forms 80% by volume. And their fruiting bodies, mushrooms, contain some of the most beneficial, nutrient rich, medicine rich living matter on earth. Fungi is closer to animal than plant as a life form. One could say we are distant relatives.

As food, mushrooms contain carbohydrates, proteins, enzymes, minerals and vitamins, organic acids and fatty acids, and a host of medicinal compounds. Many species of wild life live off of them, and people have eaten them for most of the lifespan of humans on earth.

So, when I got interested in mushrooms as a subject, and medicinal mushrooms in particular, though edible ones have been a part of my diet for a long time, I took some time and did mushroom foraging walks and read a lot on the subject. I was finding the visible white thread-like or mesh mycelium around my garden breaking down the wood chip mulch and integrating the soil in my garden beds.

I was fascinated by the process of soil creation from seemingly dead organic matter, and wanted to know how to increase the fertility of my soil. I learned that there is a structure of micro-organisms and plants in soil that meant the difference between healthy productive plants and poorly producing ones. That difference was the micro-organism population of the soil. This includes literally trillions of thousands of kinds of bacteria, virus, protozoa, actinomycetes, and algae, that all influence the fertility and health of soil.

For example I discovered that it takes certain bacteria interacting with inorganic minerals, where a bit of carbon is added on, so a plant can recognize it as a nutrient, for plants to be able to ingest them. Then I discovered that the mycelium of fungi was what distributed that digestible (by a plant) mineral around in the soil.

Then I came across research and a knowledgeable expert on composting at ECHO facility in Florida which greatly surprised and delighted me, in that there is communication between plants, beneficial micro-organisms like bacteria, virus, protozoa and other such tiny creatures, and that the way this occurs is along those same mycelium. If there are no or poor populations of these beneficial micro-organisms, plants are limited to the amount and range of nutrients to the extent of their tiny rootlets, not beyond. But with the extension by way of the mycelium, a plant such as a tree can reach great distances and get what it needs. (see below on mycorrhizal fungi)

There is something called a ‘mother tree’ – usually the largest tree of any species in a given forested area. That tree not only drops her seeds which become trees, but she also provides them with nutrients and nurtures them for long periods of time. When we cut down the largest tree in a forest area, we cut off that beneficial activity. We need to completely re-think forestry in light of this knowledge~!

So, the interaction of the fungi, beneficial micro-organisms, worms (which produce those BMOs), and plants are what make up life on earth so that humans and animals can have something to eat, oxygen to breathe, rain (forests cause rain) to drink, and other vital conditions.

But fruiting bodies (mushrooms) have come to mean much more to me. It turns out that certain mushrooms are particularly powerful healing agents. Since many of our most virulent diseases come from a break down in our ability to detoxify, and weakened immune systems, anything that restores those abilities physically is important to our survival. Personally I’ve wanted to help some dear friends.

So, I started looking for certain mushrooms which grow in this area of NE Georgia. On my mushroom forages I found many of them growing wild in the woods. Turkey Tail is abundant in un-cleared forested areas because they grow on fallen branches usually, or rotting logs. My fellow foragers told me they make a tea of turkey tail for the immune system and cancer. Later I learned that adding alcohol tincturing process to the making of turkey tail medicinally grabs more of the medicinal qualities out of it than just tea.

I had heard of Reishi before I ever saw one, but came upon a bunch of them around the stump of a log in a town nearby, where kids had kicked them off the stump. They were lying around on the ground, and I quickly recognized them from pictures, and scooped them up. They are quite woody shelf mushrooms (they look like a shelf growing off a tree). When young they can be cut with a knife, but later they need to be sawed up. Then to my surprise, after looking through numerous woody areas around my locale, I found several of them growing off a stump in the middle of my garden! Yahoo!

A friend of mine was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago. I had been researching the effects of various botanicals and mushrooms on cancer, so I gathered up my research, wrote it all up, and sent a goodly supply to her. The three which came up as most powerful in my research that I had access to were Turkey Tail, Reishi, and Shitake. I had dried shitake because it’s a favorite mushroom in Asian cooking, which I am fond of. I collected the turkey tail on forage, and had the reishi from my own organic garden.

There is a technique called double extraction where a mushroom is soaked in alcohol for about a month (at least 80 proof Vodka is what I use), juiced, the tincture thus created set aside. Then the debris from the juicing is decocted – simmered for some time in water, perhaps several hours, and juiced again to extract every drop of the medicine infused liquid. The water and the alcohol tincture are then brought together, and given several times a day in ¼ teaspoon doses. I didn’t know this technique at the time unfortunately, but it wouldn’t have made any difference because my friend was scared into chemo and surgery. Then she started doing her own research but by then she had tossed my package in the trash and I didn’t have replacements. Sadly she passed 3 weeks ago. She had later researched more and gone into a detoxification protocol, and alternate methods of botanicals and oxygen therapy thereby extending her life about 3 years, but they weren’t soon enough and things had gotten out of control.

Knowledge can save your life. The more good and true knowledge one has, the better chance of overcoming some of these really nasty disease processes. It’s being done every day with methods which are dismissed by the usual medical and pharmaceutical corporate community because those methods compete with their massive profits. But after a great deal of research into this subject, if I knew I had cancer, the last thing I would do is put myself in the hands of an oncologist or medical doctor for anything but diagnostic techniques.

Because I have a large organic garden, I have taken the time to research what it takes to grow food, have the soil sufficiently fertile to produce quantity and quality foods and medicinal herbs, and to understand the relationships between the plants and the soil, the micro-organisms and their role, and ways to enhance all these elements. The more I researched the more I realized how vital it is not to till the soil, which breaks up the network of fungi connecting bmo’s and plants constituting the ‘structure’ of the soil, but instead I only keep adding layers of organic matter and mineral sources such as crushed granite. I let the worms do the mixing up of those layers, which they are very happy to do.

Another way to introduce beneficial fungal populations is the addition of Mycorrhizal spores into the soil. “Mycor” – “rhiza” literally means “fungus” – “root” and defines the mutually beneficial relationship between the plant and root fungus. These specialized fungi colonize plant roots and extend far into the soil. Mycorrhizal fungal filaments in the soil are truly extensions of root systems and are more effective in nutrient and water absorption than the roots themselves. More than 90 percent of plant species in natural areas form a symbiotic relationship with the beneficial mycorrhizal fungi.

“Mycorrhizal fungi increase the surface absorbing area of roots 100 to a 1,000 times, thereby greatly improving the ability of the plant to access soil resources. Several miles of fungal filaments can be present in less than a thimbleful of soil. Mycorrhizal fungi increase nutrient uptake not only by increasing the surface absorbing area of the roots, but also release powerful enzymes into the soil that dissolve hard-to-capture nutrients, such as organic nitrogen, phosphorus, iron and other “tightly bound” soil nutrients. This extraction process is particularly important in plant nutrition and explains why non-mycorrhizal plants require high levels of fertility to maintain their health. Mycorrhizal fungi form an intricate web that captures and assimilates nutrients, conserving the nutrient capital in soils.” http://www.mycorrhizae.com/

Mycorrhizal fungi are present in undisburbed soil, but because of many practices of modern agriculture or common gardening, such as tilling, use of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and other anti-microbial chemicals, erosion, removal of topsoil, compaction of soil, invasion of weeds and leaving soil fallow, its presence is diminished or wiped out.

I have purchased mycorrhizal inoculants and added them to the soil in my garden beds to increase fertility and help keep moisture and nutrients in the soil. I also recommend this to my consultant clients. A little goes a very long way though. But keeping the viable beneficial fungi population happy and healthy, it goes a long way in cutting the work load of growing food or any plants. They don’t necessarily grow mushrooms, but they are worker bee fungi in the soil.

Worms are very important to the soil health and fertility. They are the little rototillers of the soil which don’t disturb the structure, just help to transport organic matter down into the lower levels of the soil, open it to oxygen which the roots need, and allowing moisture to penetrate below the surface. They also are microbe factories. And because they eat root matter, they have a ‘gullet’ organ which helps to grind that up. So, they need a source of sand or tiny granite particles.

I’ve done what I can to enhance the prospects for the worms, the bmo’s, and thus the plants and herbs. This includes making compost tea, bio-char (fermented activated charcoal), composting, and companion gardening so the plants are happy with one another. But also I have done what I could to enhance the mycelium in the soil. Since fungi are so important, they need to be fed just like plants and bees and butterflies. What they like is woody matter.

So, I load up the wood chips on pathways, and use finely ground up organic garden waste as top dressing around my crops. All my pathways are about four to six inches deep in coarse wood chips, and I try to give my beds at least an inch or two of fine mulch every new planting season along with layers of compost, coffee grounds, crushed egg shells, fresh kitchen waste (peelings and such), and when available, as a very top dressing, the cleanings from a chicken coop. I don’t mix the chicken manure into the soil. It goes on last after planting. If dug in it will burn the roots. But on top it infuses with watering and breaks down slowly.

I get some little brown mushrooms coming up sometimes in the beds or pathways, but fruiting of fungi can occur anywhere that mycelium exist. I am always happy to see these mushrooms growing because they tell me the fungi is healthy in the soil and breaking down organic matter which plants can then feed off of. It also tells me that there is a working order of mycelium networking under the surface of the soil, passing nutrients and communication for the health of my garden overall. Some people think that fungi are bad, spray their lawns, pour toxins into the soil, and never understand how nature is at work.

One very valuable job fungi do is hold onto moisture in the soil. This makes it possible for roots to stay viable and this moisture provides what the plant like a tree, needs to grow. It also helps stave off erosion, and keeps the environment staying in balance with moisture and soil. Trees create rain. If they can’t draw from moisture in the soil, the activity of transpiration (where the moisture in leaves evaporates into the atmosphere), where it forms clouds and causes rain, can’t occur. It’s a relationship that keeps all plant and animal life alive. Without this activity of fungi, we would be living on a desert planet with no life.

And because fungus breaks down dead trees and plants as well as dead animals, and thus creates compost and top soil, if we didn’t have this fungal activity, our planet would be covered in the waste material of the dead and dying trees, plants and animals (that aren’t eaten as carrion by other animals), our world would be like a giant trash heap. Nature recycles all the nutrients in these dead life forms and gives them back as raw material to support all life.

There is exchange between plants and fungi because the trees and above ground plants through photosynthesis can make sugar which the fungi needs to eat but can’t itself make, being under the ground and not having light available to it. They need each other and form a symbiotic relationship.

Paul Stamets and Tradd Cotter both have done extensive research on various aspects of fungi to remedy the state of contamination in soil and the environment, and how that has affected our forests and food producing lands. Mr. Cotter wrote a book on how to organically farm mushrooms and remediate the soil. Paul Stamets has been a leader in enlightening people on the uses of fungi to save the bees and other critical environmental issues and written many books as well.

Interestingly enough, it has been found that certain fungi actually eat plastic. One experiment by Paul Stamets was the decontamination of petrochemical matter in soil by the use of oyster mushroom inoculation. Research is underway on several continents in the use of fungi to overcome the devastating effects and die-off of life in many areas and the decontaminating (detoxifying or neutralizing) of the chemicals used in agriculture and the result of manufacturing. Fungi is truly one of the biggest tools nature uses to bring back balance to our world.

There are so many parallels between what happens in the soil and environment and our health, where fungi plays a part. We can’t ignore the effect of what we do to the earth and how it impacts our own existence and well being.

Our bodies have fungi in them, but usually infections like athletes foot are bad news. I see things like fungal infections as an indicator of a problem, not the problem itself. Fungus usually is a digesting agent. It is breaking down organic matter and processing other substances. Nature has a way of eliminating toxins and unwanted or harmful substances and it often uses fungus to do that. So I look further into that kind of problem to see what is unbalanced and repair that rather than just try and kill off the infection only.

Fungus plays another role in our health. Edible mushrooms are highly nutritious because they are the accumulation of the entire mycelium bringing up nutrients from the soil to create reproductive spores. The resulting fruit is loaded with many of the same nutrients found in meats, grains, or beans. In fact if someone is a vegan or vegetarian, mushrooms can provide many of the vital nutrients that vegetables and fruit alone are lacking. “Mushrooms are low in calories, fat-free, cholesterol-free, gluten-free, and very low in sodium, yet they provide important nutrients, including selenium, potassium (8%), riboflavin, niacin, vitamin D and more.” http://www.mushroomhealthsummit.com/

Other nutrients in mushrooms include B vitamins, for energy and the nervous system. They are rich in minerals but also beta-glucans, which are immune boosting compounds that are being linked with cancer research and other immune related diseases. High in anti-oxidants, and having anti-tumor properties, they provide powerful protective and healing effects. They also provide Vitamin D, something unusual in other foods such as vegetables. Vitamin D is powerfully linked with protection against and handling of cancer and many other diseases.

Some types of fungi also help us utilize grains, fruits and other foods through fermentation by fungal cultures (as well as yeast), for bread, wine, cheese, beer, soy sauce and marmite. http://www.britmycolsoc.org.uk/mycokids/what-do-fungi-do1/ But mostly, through the ages, people have found the edible mushrooms and benefited from their food value directly. The benefits of fermentation have expanded our diets and made many foods available for human consumption when it might not have been, or given us a more diverse and pleasant diet. Plus these activities have also acted to preserve foods which would otherwise have gone sour or rotted and not been available in winter or famine times. We owe fungi our long stay on earth as a species.

I have continually been amazed in my research and study of all the things fungi has given humans not to mention all other life forms on earth. But recently my attention has gone onto the healing qualities not only because my one friend recently died of cancer, but also because I’m seeing more and more illness and ill health among my family, friends and associates.

We’re actually experiencing a mass epidemic which the media doesn’t really express but which is obvious when you put together what IS on the media – the subjects of increased obesity, diabetes, auto-immune, cancers of all kinds, and un-diagnosable strange illnesses cropping up, not to mention the emergence of antibiotic resistant strains of old diseases like childhood measles etc., influenza, and new ones introduced from around the globe.

I believe that these health issues are directly relatable to a toxic environment, poor and poisonous food and food additives, gmos, chem. trail heavy metal contamination, the expanding electromagnetic pollution from cell towers and microwave ‘smart phones’, water contamination with fluoride, chlorine, chloramines, pharmaceuticals and others, and poor air quality making for a very contaminated every day exposure to health destroying substances and energies. These all add up to a tremendous health problem only more visible because of the healthcare political football being tossed around. It’s getting harder and harder to afford treatment and quality health care. We are under tremendous stress just to stay healthy and well fed.

So, from my own viewpoint, I feel that if people can learn how to stay healthy themselves through the use of food, simple home remedies using things available nearby or easily accessible through the internet and reliable resources, we can focus the health care dollar on things that can’t be done at home. If we can stay free of colds and the flu, of wound infections and even tougher conditions, and even stave off the use of harmful pharmaceuticals and medical protocols that destroy the immune system or fill our bodies full of toxic materials, we can protect ourselves and our families.

My emphasis in the thousands of hours of research I have conducted as a citizen scientist and Certified Permaculture Designer, has always been on solutions. First isolating the problems, then finding ways to combat them in the direction of health, environmental protection and safety, increased crop yields as an agricultural consultant, and soil remediation, has been the focus of my explorations for the last 7 years. We aren’t going to get answers from the media, from the government, or even from the corporate world we live in. They all have agendas which don’t necessarily include our interests. But the data is out there, and there are solutions! We need to take on more responsibility for our own states of being and use our own judgment, but that can only happen with knowledge.

We are blessed with some brilliant people who have discovered things beyond the usual pathways of knowledge lately and really think outside the box.

One forerunning guru on the subject of fungi as a planet healer is Paul Stamets http://www.fungi.com/about-paul-stamets.html who has heralded the benefits of all aspects of fungal solutions on TED talks, and a host of memorable and enlightening books. In terms of fungi and its part in our survival, we can look to Tradd Cotter, a fungi expert, for data on soil remediation. http://www.mushroommountain.com/

The internet is rich with information on mushrooms, their identification, benefits, ways to locate and utilize them, recipes for eating, and general good information. I have greatly enjoyed studying them ongoing, and have really started to become aware of their presence around me and in my garden. This process has been greatly expanded through friends and the local mushroom groups like the Georgia Mushroom Club who conduct forages and talks by knowledgeable mycologists (those who study mushrooms).

A friend who is a forager and does a lot of harvesting in forests in our area brings me a wonderful selection of edible and medicinal mushrooms. We went up to North Carolina a few weeks ago to see Paul Stamets speak, and on the drive she brought out some Black Staining Polypore jerky which tasted like the finest beef variety because this particular mushroom tastes like steak.

On my own property I have found Turkey Tail, Reishi, Black Staining Polypore, Oyster, and delicious edible Puffballs. My mother was skilled in recognizing edible mushrooms when I was a child and we often feasted on mushrooms that grew in our yard in Michigan. But for myself I have heeded the warning about not eating anything not completely identified. You can die from poisonous mushrooms and toad stools that look like good ones if you don’t know the difference. So, I have really done my homework before eating or using any of them. There is a mushroom identification group on Face Book which I have benefited from as well.

That being said, when I have found and properly identified the beneficial mushrooms, I have greatly enjoyed eating them. Recently we have had an outcropping of puffballs which are delicious when sauteed in butter. And one of my interns spotted an outcropping of the delicious Black Staining Polypores in amongst my tomato plants a few weeks ago. Upon careful inspection in amongst the thick growth of vegetables and herbs, we found close to a hundred pounds of them! Their size was astounding, some being clusters of ‘leaves’ in a single mushroom weighing over 35 lbs. I cleaned and cut them up, sautéed the outer tender portions of the ‘leaves’ and refrigerated them – to be vacuum packed and frozen for later use. The tougher parts I cut up and dehydrated, some used in making mushroom boullion which tastes like the most delicious beef bone stock.

In further research on the medicinal qualities of some varieties, I have started to make various DIY mushroom medicinal tinctures of turkey tail, and reishi. It turns out that all edible mushrooms have health benefits. And they help the body detoxify many pollutants and contaminants which we are exposed to through food, water and air.

A list of some of the more important medicinal mushrooms are: Chaga, Reishi, Maitake (Hen of the Woods), Turkey Tail, Shitake, Oyster, Cordyceps, Lions Mane, Chicken of the Woods, Poria, Tender Polypore, Wood Ear, Chantarelle, Button, Honey, Morel, and many more. http://www.mushroommountain.com/mushroom_hunting/index.asp

Preparing the mushroom into tinctures made of alcohol, or as a tea, or decoction (simmering in water for various amounts of time), or making a powder of them and ingesting them directly all have been used medicinally for a very long time. Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayervedic (traditional medicine from India), medicine of native American Indians, and in European medicine practice have all used medicinal mushrooms depending on what was available to them. We happen to be very rich in these fungi in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains but beneficial mushrooms can be found on every continent on the planet except where climate forbids such as Antarctica. So, no matter where you live, some variety or another can be found.

But if wild-crafting isn’t your thing or you don’t live near a suitable hunting area with lots of woods and uncontaminated spaces, you can grow your own mushrooms from spores available from Fungi Perfecti (Paul Stamets) or Mushroom Mountain (Tradd Cotter) or any number of reputable mushroom growers and supply houses. Often they are available as kits. Especially popular are oyster and shitake kits. They are relatively easy to grow. But others such as Maitake can also be grown either on inoculated logs or grown from blocks of compressed wood chips or straw.

You can also purchase already dehydrated powders and mushrooms from the same sources which save you having to identify them. Many of them are highly healing and immune boosting, if not to say, curing of various ailments. But you can save yourself quite a bit of money by finding or growing your own.

Growing mushrooms can be an excellent source of nutrition, gourmet quality and delicious, not to mention a fun hobby. But the more tricky types such as the polypore varieties – known more as ‘shelf’ mushrooms, can also be grown from spores. Some take longer such as Reishi which can take a year or more to fruit.

Gourmet commercially grown or hunted mushrooms include: button mushrooms, crimini, truffles, portabella, morel, Inoki, oyster, and shitake. I get many of these from my local Oriental market. Asian cooking often includes mushrooms whereas our own culture usually limits our mushroom use to button or portabella or if we’re really lucky, truffles. But having been exposed to my foraging friends and their culinary experimentation, I can say that we could really have so much more variety by knowing and growing some of these other kinds. There’s nothing like a broth made from Shitake mushrooms – delicious!

If you get the bug and want to learn more, there are mushrooming clubs all over, just Google your locale. You can find classes or organized forays online with a little research, there are field guides available, and as mentioned above, a Face Book identification group. I took advantage of a club forage event in Atlanta a number of years ago, and have since gone out with friends who are more knowledgeable than myself. Sometimes you find neat things, sometimes not so much, but I always enjoy walking through the woods.

If you see mushrooms growing out of your lawn, be very careful to get expert identification because sometimes mushroom circles will appear after a rain which are not edible. My mother was knowledgeable enough to know which was which, so don’t just automatically discount something you find. Just get exact identification.

Right now there’s a lovely puffball mushroom in my kitchen I picked yesterday, which is waiting for my attention – to be cut up, sautéed in butter and added to an omelet. When my friends who have more property than I who also are mushroomers or foragers have an abundance of chantarelles, oysters, puffballs, or other delectable wild crafted mushrooms, I happily trade my herbs and vegetables for their bounty.

I have learned that all edible mushrooms have some medicinal elements which keep the body healthy and the immune system jumping to stave off the usual traveling colds and flues or other bugs. So I stay healthy way more than my friends who aren’t so enlightened.

I also have a shitake growing log in my basement, but because I have playful cats who bring in the odd mouse to play with, the mice get the mushrooms before I have the pleasure. One former intern has really gotten into growing shitake mushrooms and has a number of logs stacked at her farm, like a log cabin, all growing ‘rooms’ profusely – to sell. I’m not that ambitious. However, I am determined to be able to provide my own mushrooms to eat and make medicine. Inoculating logs or making up kits is a fun thing and I only need to prepare a better location. I know that particularly oyster mushrooms can be grown right from a container of used coffee grounds and nothing else. Very productively too, as I have seen done.

I hope I have opened your eyes to the potentials of mushrooms for health, the understanding of how fungi benefit the world, your garden or farm, and the whole of the environment and planet.

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2 Responses to Mushrooms, How Fungi Heals People and the Earth

  1. Suzie says:

    Thank you so very much for taking the time to share your knowledge,not only of fungi but of all the subject matter here. I am just at the very start of what I pray will be a four acre food farm. I have just under 300 seedlings I started a couple weeks ago and some blueberry bushes, all waiting to planted. I thought I was ready to begin. However after doing allot more research I am finding that my preparation is lacking some seemingly need elements. I must admit that I am feeling a bit overwhelmed. Not wanting to be scared off before even putting my first plant in the ground I saw your link and because of all the wonderful information you have provided, I find myself with a new inspiration to just get them in the ground and make needed adjustments as I go. So thank you with all my heart!

    • didirks says:

      Suzie, I’m so glad you are inspired to continue and move on with your projects. You are very welcome. It is my own philosophy that the purpose in life is to help others.

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