By Andrew Street

Fungi are the true aliens among us. Not plants nor animals, they are the third and least understood kingdom of taxonomy. They are also an integral and intricate part of the garden and for better or worse, here to stay. Mainly detritivores, fungi help to break down organic material that is always found in the garden. Still there are some species that prey on living organisms and stopping them from doing so, is easier said than done…

Take a stroll around, any time of the year, and you should find evidence of these incognito inhabitants.

Mushrooms and conchs are the best way to look for the presence of a fungus. These familiar sights are actually the product of sexual reproduction, popping up, unfurling and sending out spores to be taken by the wind to almost anywhere on the planet! Fungi themselves are usually not visible unless you do a little digging. Ever move some mulch and see this white stringy looking spider webbing? Actually that is a fungus, working on breaking down the cellulose and other wood particles for food.

Fungi come in all shapes and sizes and colors. In fact, the largest organism in the world was found to be a fungus; various mushrooms were tested for DNA and found to be a part of one large organism—four square miles of large, actually. This fungus is also estimated to be between 2,400 and 6,850 years old. That takes care of the biggest and oldest.

There is even a species of fungus that was recently discovered, growing underwater, in a river in Oregon! It has gills and everything! Crazy.

Here in the garden, we don’t know exactly how large our fungi are, nor do we know how many we have. There are a couple species that are evident and unfortunately quite destructive in their habits.

Ganoderma zonatum is a type of fungus that feeds on the lignin found in the trunks of living palm trees. Unfortunately, once a conch is spotted on the trunk, there is nothing that can be done for the palm tree or the spot in the landscape—both are contaminated and the palm will soon die. As the fungus lives in the soil, palms can no longer be planted in that location.

As if Ganoderma was not scary enough, there is another known predator called, Fusarium oxysporum, that lives in our garden. Already the consumer of three large Podocarpus, this fungus is looking to take a fourth near the native and Japanese section. Different Fusarium are listed according to their host plants, but little can be done to cure a plant once it shows signs of Fusarium wilt.

Both Ganoderma and Fusarium are killers and there is plenty of evidence to show this, but without fungi, our world would be a very different place, and not nearly as friendly a one.

The truth is, Fungi are crucial to the ecosystem and break down what nothing else could. For better or worse, we need fungi. Next time you see a mushroom, either in the garden or on your plate, think about that third kingdom and how large a role they play, with us and what we love, in this world.

photo 1: red cage fungi

photo 2: Ganoderma

photo 3: yellow fungi

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