Fungus, Farewell!

Field Notices

Luther College Chips
October 2, 2009

Okay, I admit it. Fungi have a bad reputation.

Fungus is the athlete’s foot you try to avoid picking up in the Regents Center shower. Fungus exudes the ripe, rank smell that clues you in that your roommate has left her running clothes in the same unwashed pile at the bottom of her closet for three days.

A rich bloom of fungus forced thousands of Iowans to strap on respirators as they re-entered houses soaked by last June’s floods. Fungus ruins the too-old cheese in my refrigerator dairy drawer.

And fungus is creepily attracted to, well, dead stuff.

Still, this summer I’ve had to bid melancholy farewell to a fungus I’ve been following since 1989.

The fungus was a fairy ring that made its way across my front lawn at the rate of about half a foot a year. What began as a complete, small hollow circle of darkened grass when we bought our house in the late ‘80s, disappeared in part, but then moved northeast in a ring segment that grew longer each summer, like the single quadrant in a ripple of water emanating outward in slow motion from a tossed stone.

The deep green of the grass in the ring was caused by a soil fungus sending threads and chemicals through the dirt and grass roots ahead of it to make a more fertile environment into which it could expand next season after it exhausted the nutrients in its current home.

This summer the fairy ring paled out into nonexistence. Even fungi die.

Not so yet for the mother of all fungi, a single Armillaria ostoyae fungus in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest that is six square miles in size, making it perhaps the world’s largest solitary living organism. In spite of forest fires and climate shifts, this Armillaria has lived for at least 2,000 years: perhaps over 8,000 years. That makes it one of the world’s oldest living things as well.

If you think I’m alone in feeling attracted to or even awestruck by a soil fungus, think again. If you want to slice up a freshly dug Italian white truffle for the pizza you serve this weekend for homecoming, competitive bidders with deep pockets from around the world are going to make your pick expensive. This month Dean and Deluca will charge you $730 for 1.75 ounces. If you’ve got an appetite for more than a pinch or two of truffles, that would be $7200 a pound.

I don’t need to spend that kind of money to please my fungal palate. The dried porcini and shitake at the Oneota Co-op have a magical way of soaking up the flavors around them while adding their own downright sexy kick to the hot dishes into which they are stirred.

If you prefer absolutely free fungus flavor in late summer and early fall, you can search the woods for our own local humongous fungus: the giant puffball. These glow like pale, forgotten volleyballs in the forest shade. Lethal when they are mature, picked while they are white inside and out, these can be sliced into mushroom steaks that make even the largest Portabella look diminutive. What they lack in flavor, they make up in size.

All this talk about fairy rings, monster fungi, and exotic flavor makes it easy to overlook the vital, quiet, daily work fungi carry out for each of us.

Fungi are a cross between garbage hauler and fairy godmother. They make problems disappear, leaving riches in their place.

The fungus that sends its hairlike hyphae through the dead leaves and melon rinds in the college’s compost pile is quietly turning today’s refuse into tomorrow’s soil. Without fungi we would all need to learn a new kind of tolerance for dead things.

And even if you pick the mushrooms off your pizza, I’ll bet you enjoy the kitchen smell of rising and fresh-baked bread—all made possible with the fungal help of yeast that gives mundane ingredients the airy loft that tastes divine.

As for the fairy ring that loaned a bit of enchantment to the monotony of grass in my front yard for all those years, I never saw the fungus itself.

Fairy rings can produce the fruiting bodies known as mushrooms, including the sweet little scotch bonnet that mushroom connoisseurs eat like candy. The fairy ring out my front window was a regular Boo Radley of a neighbor, never showing itself in that way. All I ever saw was the luxuriant growth of lawn it cultivated above itself as it moved.

Fairy ring, fare-thee-well. Shy as you were, I’m going to miss your company.