Yesterday’s post on fungal hyphae inspired a very talented naturalist/author to send me a poem she had written about the same subject. I was so taken with her poem that I asked permission to share it with you today. I hope it speaks to you as it does to me. (A mass of hyphae is referred to as mycelium.)
The mole has it at her fingertips, the slug
finds it delicious, the chipmunk
is a connoisseur of its networks,
under the deer’s sharp hooves,
it is broken and healed.
It is a blanket woven
in the bed of the earth.
It is patient as the desert,
willing to wait
a month or a season
for the engorgement of rain,
the carnal urgency of fruit ,
the ethereal casting of spores.
Some believe they know
about the longings of trees,
their reachings for the sky,
their intimacy with the air,
but a tree meets its true lover
in a secret tryst under the earth,
in the clasping of root tips
the sheathing, the enfolding,
the flowing back and forth,
the quenchings and bodily gifts
of the mycorrhyzal embrace.
Kathie Fiveash, author, Island Naturalist
The woods are filled with all kinds of plants – herbaceous and woody, flowering and non-flowering. Each plant appears to be independent of all others, but this is an illusion. In fact, most of the plants in a forest are physically connected to one another. How and why this is so is a little known fact.
Fungal threads called hyphae (the subterranean body of a fungus that we don’t usually see) run throughout the soil. Each one is ten times finer than a plant’s root hair. While some are digesting dead organic matter, others are forming a relationship with photosynthetic plants. This mutually beneficial relationship between fungi and plants is referred to as mycorrhizal.
The very fine fungal threads are capable of penetrating plant cells, allowing the fungus to receive sugars that the photosynthetic plant has manufactured. At the same time, the fungus provides the plant with minerals (especially phosphates) it has garnered from the soil. Nearly all plants have mycorrhizal fungi wrapped in or around their roots, and many of these plants cannot live without their fungal partners. The real work of a plant’s roots may well be to serve as the connector to this network of fungal hyphae that exists in the soil. (photo: Eastern White Pine,Pinus strobus)
The term “jelly fungus” is an informal one applied to species of fungi that have a gelatin-like consistency. The reason for this texture is that the structural filaments, or hyphae, of these fungi have walls that are not thin and rigid as they are in most other species, but instead shrink and expand in response to moisture. The hyphae are expanded and gelatinous when moist, but during dry periods they collapse and become rather hard and resistant to bending. These tissues are able to exist in a dry state for many months and, when exposed to moisture, quickly expand to full size. They may be among the earliest fungi seen in the spring because they have remained dry and inconspicuous all winter, only to revive with the first melting snow or during winter thaws. Jelly fungi come in several colors. Some of the orange and yellow forms found growing on deciduous trees, especially oaks and beech, are called “witches’ butter.”