Sometimes you don’t need to go far for an adventure.
Travelling far and wide requires time and resources. However, in absence of either of them, a little bit of observation can transform any ordinary day into one packed with satisfying excitement. So how can we travel without actually ‘travelling’? The answer is by entering the mesmerizing, infinite world of nature. There are millions of creatures existing and fitting the ecosystems in unique ways. Miraculous processes are occurring every time right in front of us. Although, our exposure to nature has been made myopic-most of the talks are centered around big mammals and pretty flowers- even seemingly nonsensical creatures like mushrooms contain a plethora of science, discoveries, fun-facts, myths, stories and above all Beauty.
On hearing the word mushroom, chances are your subconscious will open up a memory about someone being poisoned after eating a wild mushroom. Or you may recall the cute white button or oyster mushrooms at the grocery stores. At the most, some little mushrooms growing on roadsides or building cracks may briefly be visualized by you. However, you may be surprised to know that as little (or big!) and inconspicuous as they may be, mushrooms encompass a wide gamut of our existence (some scientists claim we’ll as well die without them) and have the potential to benefit almost all the processes of life and civilization.
First things first, mushrooms are a type of fungus. Secondly, the term mushroom actually denotes more than 10,000 species having great variations in size, habitats and colour. Some mushrooms are microscopic, while I saw a penny bun of more than 25cm diameter. Similarly they can be red, yellow, purple, white, spotted etc. Also, they can be found in tropical areas, in temperate regions and also in alpine meadows.
Mushrooms, especially wild ones, have always been an important component of food for the unmatched nutrients they contain. In ancient Egypt (one of the most advanced civilizations of that time), mushrooms were considered to be of divine origin, sent to the earth for the pharaohs (or kings) by gods themselves to give immortality. Ordinary people were forbidden to eat them. Since those pharaohs were still among us, as mummies, it seems they were indeed bestowed immortality! Years later the Caesars (kings) of Holy Roman Empire, again one of the greatest empires when it existed, cherished Amanita Caesarea or Caesar’s mushroom (named for being their favourite). Modern time has lent an altogether higher pedestal to wild mushrooms due to them being organic. Some of the favourites of the present are chanterelle, penny bun and shiitake, along with Caesar’s mushroom. These wild mushrooms are not easily available and have to be ‘hunted’ in forested areas. And since a mushroom grows (unpredictably) only for a few days and stays eatable for an even lesser time, a mushroom hunter has really a tough job keeping a close eye for this treasure trove. Also, she should be equipped with sufficient knowledge and experience to be able to identify mushrooms clearly. In fact, some states of USA have a mechanism of properly certifying mushroom hunters who are authorized to sell their ‘bag’. In times of an ever expanding world population and crises situations, when even insects are being considered to be eaten (entomophagy), edible mushrooms can be used to fulfill the nutritional requirements. This has happened in war-torn Syria, where Oyster mushroom was used as a substitute of meat. Some edible mushrooms have hallucinogenic properties as well, giving the feeling of being ‘high’. Like Fly Agaric that may have been eaten by warriors before battles to decrease sensation of fear in historic times. (Interestingly, the red and white colour of Santa Claus, may also have been inspired by Fly Agaric.)
However, as with every other thing, mushrooms too have a darker side. Some such tales come from the Roman empire again (which seems to have deep connections to mushrooms). Remember Nero, who played the harp while Rome was burning. It is said that his mother murdered, by mushroom poisoning, her husband, Claudius, so that Nero could become emperor. The death of Roman Emperor King Charles VI, said to be by consuming a deadly mushroom, led to the War of Austrian Succession for which Voltaire, the famous philosopher remarked, “ A dish of mushrooms changed the destiny of Europe.” Not just the toxicity, the edibility of the mushrooms has also been used to maintain hierarchy of society (and may be for balancing nutritional requirements of the entire population). The Bible mentions the story of the creation of mushroom by God wherein He says, “ Let it be for the poor.” In Hinduism as well, mushrooms are considered tamasic and therefore impure for the ‘upper’ castes. Even today, orthodox Hindus belonging to ‘higher’ castes refrain from eating mushrooms.
Mushrooms are food not just for humans, but have a definite place in the food chain and all this is not even visible to us. Actually the mushroom about which we were talking till now is only the fruiting body of an organism growing underneath the soil or wood (or any other medium on which it is growing). The underground part, mycelium, looks like a spider web. It spreads in the ground, defragmenting and aerating soil particles in the process. This network also takes shelter in the roots of plants and gives some very valuable nutrients to them. This symbiotic relationship, known as mycorhiza (myco-fungus and rhiza-root), is essential for almost each and every plant (and tree and herb and shrub) on earth. Some scientists claim that in the absence of mycorhiza, plant life will become extinct. Even today, the lack of regeneration of barren lands is attributed by some experts to a lack of suitable mycorhiza in the soil. Apart from this, the mycelium also recycles waste into useful elements. Mycelium thrives beneath the soil and upon suitable conditions, shortly after rains, the fruiting part emerges instantly, giving rise to the idiom-mushroom growth. (This made the ancient Egyptians to believe that the mushrooms are sent from heaven through lightning.) This phenomena also subtly suggests that for mushroom growth, a strong foundation is essential. When growing on trees, mycelium hollows out wood creating living spaces for squirrels, birds, rats, insects, bats etc.
Spores of mushrooms, that are used in propogation, get scattered in a circle around their parent. Fairy rings are a result of this, in which new baby mushrooms are found growing in numerous circles. Some believe fairies dance inside these after rainstorms. In some countries, even travelers are advised to avoid these since they are symbolized with black magic and sorcery.
Recently, a new technology-Mycorestoration is emerging that employs the use of mushrooms in various activities like mycofiltration, mycoremediation, mycoforestry and mycopesticides. In these, mushrooms are used for cleaning oil spills, nuclear meltdown, treating sewage, producing organic pesticides, absorbing pollutants from soil and water etc.
In spite of the mushrooms’ invaluable services to nature and their food value, they garner little recognition in our present environmental discourse. To conserve the nature in an orderly manner, it is of utmost importance to study it in totality and for this, mushrooms and other similar inconspicuous organisms must get their required share of attention. In our times when environmental changes are beginning to scare us and the problems of nature seem insuperable, it is high time we acknowledge the contribution of all organisms inhabiting the earth.
Casual walks by me along with my four legged best friend inspired me to delve into the mysterious world of mushrooms. I also happened to confirm some wild mushrooms and taste delicacies of penny bun, chanterelle and Caesar’s mushroom. More than that, I was humbled being amidst nature and I realised my insignificance as a member of the human race. Spending time with little creatures made me environmentally more conscious as well. So next time you find yourself fretting about a missed vacation or insufficient money, think again. Because, there’s a whole new world waiting to be explored just outside the door!
(Medha Pande is a nature enthusiast and writer from Nainital, India. Growing up so close to nature has had a profound impact on her personality. She believes in exposing the bitter truths to people to garner support for a meaningful change and this she strives to achieve by her writing. Also, she believes in easy yet powerful words and a friendly style. She loves writing and therefore writes whatever moves her soul. She also writes stories concerning raw human emotions. Occasionally she is a satirist exposing our double standards. She loves to spend her free time with her furry best friend. She believes in the adage of Alvin Toffler, “Learn. Unlearn. Relearn.” She has been published in The Wire, Down to Earth, Hindustan Times and Hektoen International Journal of Medical Humanities.)
(Views expressed and experiences shared by the writer are his/her own and He/She is liable for the same. It is not essential for the moderator to agree with the views and experiences)