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Mycorrhizal mushrooms have to be some of the MOST misunderstood mushrooms out there! I don't know how many myths I run into that just seem to be taken for granted as truth, by both amateur and professional mycologists, as well as hobbyist mushroom hunters. So let's see if we can clear things up a bit, ok?
Mycorrhizal mushrooms are those that are symbiotic with plants (often trees). They have a mutually beneficial relationship with the tree - the mushroom helps convey certain kinds of nutrients to the tree, through the roots, and the tree reciprocates to the mushroom with other types of nutrients.
This type of mushroom is very poorly understood. There is not a lot of actual study going on that really tries to understand what is going on in the forest, and what the limitations of these mushrooms happen to be. Rather, the research seems to be concentrated on either the commercialization of the mushrooms (using techniques formed around incorrect assumptions), or upon trying to find a way to grow the mushrooms on industrial waste or commercially produced nutrient extracts. Not much understanding coming from either of those sources!
So what are the myths, and what is the truth about Mycorrhizal mushrooms?
- Mycorrhizal mushrooms require trees - False. They do require plants. They do NOT all require trees.
- All mushrooms of a single genus will require the same grouping of plants (ie: trees, bushes, etc) - False. Not all mushrooms of a single genus are dependent on the same kind of plant.
- Mycorrhizal mushroom mycelium won't grow in the soil - False. Some mycorrhizal mushrooms can grow and flourish just in compost - but they do require plants to fruit.
- Mycorrhizal mushrooms have to start life with the tree so the tree does not develop mycorrhizal relationships with other mushrooms first - COMPLETELY False. Mycorrhizal relationships are not exclusive, and different mycorrhizals will establish on a tree at different times in the life of the tree. Mother Nature deposits spores in manure, which leaches down into the soil over the roots of trees at all stages of development. Mycorrhizals may be introduced at any time during the life of a tree (or other plant), though many will not bear well on young trees.
- A tree can only support a single kind of mycorrhizal mushroom - False. We have found two kinds of truffles and Suillus mushrooms growing on the same tree, and even fruiting at the same time. Mycorrhizals are not all the same, and typically the older a tree, the more varied the mycorrhizal relationships will be.
- Some mycorrhizals like chanterelles take a long time to fruit because they have to develop a lot of mushroom mass to fruit - Only Partly True. It is not the mushroom mass that is so critical. It is the root mass of the tree upon which the mycorrhizal depends. The mushroom DOES have to penetrate a large amount of root mass, it is true, but it also requires a tree of a certain size and root spread to support fruiting of the mushroom. To hasten the process, chanterelles may be sown onto multiple trees within the same vicinity.
- Some compost mushrooms are parasitical on mycorrhizal mushrooms - Generally False. Most compost mushrooms accused of parasitizing mycorrhizals are actually symbiont with them. The productivity of both mushrooms is higher when they co-exist and intermingle resources.
- Mycorrhizals (especially truffles) do not grow in forests with a high nitrate content, so you must never fertilize the trees on which they grow - Partially False. While high nitrate content will reduce fruiting of many mycorrhizals, not all fertilizers are high in nitrates! Light scatterings of manure (just like you find in a forest with healthy wildlife) will actually aid in the health of the plants and the mycellium, and will lead to larger harvests, and a longer life span of harvests.
- If you are hunting truffles, there is no difference in truffle quality between using a dog or pig to locate the truffles, or in using squirrel or deer digging signs as a means of locating truffles - ABSOLUTELY False. Now, while a person can FIND truffles just as well either way, there is one SIGNIFICANT difference. When you are using wild animal activity as a means of indicating where truffles are located, THEY BEAT YOU TO IT! The animals who dug an tunneled already GOT the ripe truffles! There is nothing left for YOU, except unripe, and mostly immature truffles.
- If you are digging truffles you must place the duff back where you removed it, or it might hurt future production - False. If you stop overanalyzing things and assuming that people must NEVER BE PART OF NATURE, then you realize some very interesting things, which tell you immediately that you do NOT need to replace the duff, and if you do, there is no need to be neat about it. Truffles are the fruit of a fungus... that fruit exists for the purpose of spreading spores. It does this by getting SMELLY, so that animals DIG IT UP, and EAT IT, then spread the spores in their dung. It is ADAPTED to having the duff savagely dug up by a huffing elk or an impatient deer, or a hyperactive little squirrel, or even a ruthless pheromone seeking female pig. Trust me... they don't replace the duff! We can assume that since truffles seem to bear over and over WHERE THE ANIMALS DUG LAST YEAR, that moving things around is actually HELPING the fungus, not hurting it. This is exactly what it is designed to thrive in.
- You must never take too much when harvesting, or it will hurt production of the patch of mycorrhizals - False. Remember why mushroom fruits exist? They exist to GET EATEN, so that spores may be spread around. Now... it might slow the spread of the mushrooms through the forest, but it won't hurt that patch ONE BIT. This is what it lives for - to produce fruit that is taken somewhere else.
- If you dig too deep when removing mushrooms, you will injure the mycellium and hurt future harvests - False. I also hear people say you must cut the mushrooms to avoid injuring the mycellium. People who say either of these things DO NOT UNDERSTAND FUNGUS. Mycellium is fungus. Each cell is capable of replicating itself to become an entirely new organism. Removing part of it does not even damage it! The parts that are left just keep on functioning as though nothing changed. It isn't like ripping off an arm or something, where a specific function is gone. It is like picking a strawberry from a strawberry plant - no injury occurs, no damage is done, and the plant got what it intended to get when it produced the fruit. Mushrooms are picked TO BE REMOVED. So you pull a mushroom from the ground, and it will break WHERE IT IS SUPPOSED TO BREAK. If you dig up some of the soil with mycellium in it, the fungus will continue to grow and fruit, and will eventually infiltrate whatever ends up in the hole you made by digging out the fungus. Unless you reduce the mycellium mass SO MUCH that it no longer has enough to fruit, you aren't hurting it. Even if you dug a trench across the mycellium bed, and then put the dirt with the mycellium back in it, the fungus would quickly repair connections and go on with the business of being fungus.
- Mycorrhizals will only bear on a tree for a short time, and then the tree has to be replaced with a new one that has been inoculated with the right kind of spawn - False. As long as the tree is healthy, the mushrooms will continue to fruit on the tree. Fertilizer (as mentioned above) helps keep the environment healthy. Now... a manmade ORCHARD may have a problem, if the trees get too large. Pruning to keep good space between the branches can really help, because some mycorrhizals fruit INSIDE the dripline of the tree, some fruit ON the dripline, and some fruit on the root tips OUTSIDE the dripline. If the trees end up with branches touching, then it can significantly reduce production of mycorrhizals that produce ON, or OUTSIDE the dripline. Size of tree, health of soil. Otherwise, carry on, mycellium!
- Mycorrhizal mushrooms are the only kind that form symbiont relationships with plants - False. Many mushrooms that are classed as compost mushrooms, or wood decomposers will form symbiont relationships with plants. They are simply not OBLIGATE mycorrhizals (they do not require this relationship). But most plants do best with mushrooms growing near them, and most mushrooms do best with plants growing near them. Indeed, this is one way to help control insects and soil microbe balance.
So how do we know all of this? We watch. We observe, take notes, and test our theories. This is how Mother Nature works!
Mother Nature is pretty smart, and the key to understanding Mycorrhizals is to observe what is actually happening with them in the wild. They are not the delicate fussy things that we think they are. They are resilient, flexible, interacting and reasonable life forms. Once you see them in nature, they make more sense!