For the Love of Fungi

For the Love of Fungi

The world of fungi is full of unexpected and poetic surprises. Pranoy Thipaiah who runs the Kerehaklu farm in the Western Ghats, writes about his love for the spore kingdom.

Peering out the window of the KSRTC bus from Chikmagalur to Bangalore, huge boulders begin to appear as we near Solur — my favourite part of the journey. I usually have the front row to myself, but this time, I have Joe Rogan for company. On this particular episode of his podcast, he is chatting with Paul Stamets, the world’s leading mycologist (an expert on fungi).

Stamets has dedicated his life to fungi, and is a respected author of peer-reviewed research papers and books on the subject. A friend recommended his podcast after seeing the stacks of notes I had compiled on the various species of fungi I spotted on our family plantation in Chikmagalur — Kerehaklu.

“This episode is going to blow your mind,” he promised. And it did.

It inspired me to dig deeper into understanding the strange little critters that had begun popping up with the onset of the last monsoon. They were all everywhere — below the Arabica coffee bushes, on the barks of decaying red cedar trees, on piles of cow dung — each of them unique in shape, size and colour.

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With an academic background in ecology, I found the evolutionary aspect of fungi most curious. I learnt that a little over a billion years ago, animals and fungi separated from plants on the genealogical tree of life. Comparisons between cell structure and ribosomal RNA sequences strongly suggest that both animals and fungi evolved from a common ancestor. That makes fungi the most closely-related kingdom to us animals!

Fungi and animals both also battle the same disease-carrying pathogens — the reason why several antibiotics in use today are sourced from fungi themselves. Take Penicillin for example — the most commonly-used antibiotic worldwide — it is actually derived from the Penicillium fungi that has been placed under conditions of extreme stress. It could therefore, be argued, that Penicillin helped the Allies win World War II by saving the lives of thousands of soldiers, while the opposition was left defenceless to disease.

Fast forward a few decades and still, little is known about the world of fungi. We know of shiitakes, oysters and button mushrooms — we see them on the shelves of supermarkets and pick them up for stir-fry dinners, but how much do we really know?

Growing up at Kerehaklu, I have vivid memories of my grandmother cooking up a brownish-red, coconut-based curry with long, noodle-like mushrooms, which I now have identified as Fairy Inkcap mushrooms, Coprinus disseminatus. I would tag along with Krishna, our gardener, who had a knack for knowing exactly where to find them on the plantation. Krishna would pick them carefully, and wrap them in the folded newspaper that he carried in his back pocket.

“These mushrooms only appear when there’s lightning,” Krishna would point out.

I was unsure about this for many years, and always took it with a pinch of salt. But a recent Google Scholar search pointed me in the direction of several studies around the world which indicated that this was, in fact, the case with several species of fungi.

This underground transfer of nutrients — specifically nitrogen, in the case of lightning — is through an intricate network of connections that experts like Paul Stamets are still deciphering. While studying the symbiotic relationship between fungi and the roots of plants, he labelled the pathways ‘Earth’s natural Internet’. This association between fungi and plants is termed as ‘mycorrhizae.’ (Yes, I realise the word is as complicated as the network itself!)

Understanding the importance of mycorrhizal networks is something we all stand to benefit from — whether you’re an urban farmer with a backyard veggie patch, or the manager of a couple-hundred acre plantation.

A BBC article compared this network to the one in James Cameron’s Avatar film; an extreme comparison, of course, but there are several strong similarities. These mychorrizal networks are dense, complicated super-highways that link the roots of plants and trees, and work to communicate with one another.

A 2013 study at the University of Aberdeen illustrates this beautifully. They found that the roots of broad beans used fungal networks to pick up on imminent threats — in this particular case, aphids. Scientists found that there were definite signals being passed through the mycorrhizal network. Their findings were verified by the discovery that even broad bean plants that weren’t under attack themselves, activated their anti-aphid chemical defences!

The phrase ‘wood wide web’ seems an apt description to support Krishna’s theory, which made me feel a bit silly, to say the least. But it helped me understand that what we grow and what we feed our plants have a much larger impact on the immediate environment around us than we ever imagined.

I attended a two-day course on nutrition farming by Australian agronomist Graeme Sait, with other coffee, tea, cardamom, avocado and grape farmers from across India. The workshop covered an array of topics, but of particular interest to me was the essential link between soil health and human health.

“Give and you shall receive!” they emphasised.

Sait stressed the need to improve the quality of humus — the sweet-smelling, organic component of soil. Bringing fungi back into the soil is essential to this process — it creates a crumb structure that allows for better infiltration, facilitating the exchange of gases, among many other benefits. 90% of land plants are in a mutually beneficial relationship with fungi — a fact I still find absolutely incredible.

Which makes it very likely the Bougainvillea three houses down is actually eavesdropping on your Hibiscus.

All photographs taken on Kerehaklu plantation by Pranoy Thipaiah.

Pranoy Thipaiah is a fifth-generation coffee planter who is slowly coming to terms with the fact that talking about the weather is no longer considered awkward elevator small-talk. His plantation, Kerehaklu, is a chemical-free plantation that is home to over 7 varieties of avocado. You can order their farm-fresh produce here.

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