As the first colors touch a tree here and there in the woodlands, something magical is happening beneath the forest canopy.
Everywhere you look, mushrooms are pushing up through the forest debris. Some have red tops. Some are white. Others have spines like stalagtites hanging from their bottoms. Others are like tiny marbles, and if they’re left long enough, they’ll grow to the size of soccer balls.
There are mushrooms that are like orange jelly, and others like little red cups surrounded by black eyelashes. Their forms are often unexpected. You glance down, and come face-to-face with something that looks like it might be found on an alien planet.
Some of these mushrooms are good to eat. Others have powerful medicinal qualities that are only just now being recognized by science. Still, others are lethally poisonous. For a long time, when taking people on walks to gather the ones that are delicious on the plate, I’ve described mushrooms as “fruits”. After all, the real “body” of the mushroom is underground, or inside rotting wood, in the form of thin threads that can sometimes spread for many meters along the forest floor. The thing we call a “mushroom” emerges from those threads and helps the fungi reproduce.
Yet “fruit” is perhaps not the right word. Though long thought to be closely related to plants, evolutionary science now tells a different story. It appears that in distant times, the kingdom of plants went in one direction, while fungi and animals went a different direction. Scientists now say with conviction that fungi are closer to animals than plants.
As we learn more about our fungal friends, we’re getting the first glimpses of just how strange these creatures are. We now know that many plants cannot live without fungi, and that fungi help plants to create an immense, interconnected web of communication and distribution of resources that can spread throughout an entire forest.
Mainstream science is not ready to entertain the assertions of someone like the mushroom expert Paul Stamets, who suggests that fungi possess a consciousness that, although alien to our own, is just as capable of understanding and interacting with its environment. Still, new discoveries are unfolding each year. We’ve found that mushrooms can produce their own wind, strong enough to carry their tiny spores. We’ve found that fungi can take over the minds of insects, turning them into zombie slaves. And some fungi can have over 20,000 sexes instead of the typical two we’re used to.
Clearly, there is much to learn about fungi, those creatures who help plants live, who exist inside our own bodies, and who grace our plates in fine restaurants. If we keep an open and wondering mind, who knows what we’ll learn next?