The Value of Fungi
Fungi is often put into two categories; those which you can eat and those which you really should never try. In truth, we think about lots of things based on whether we should or shouldn't eat them. Perhaps on moral grounds, more commonly though, it is determined by how toxic they are to us to consume. There is now doubt that that are both delicious and deadly fungi out there, but there are many that are so much more! Many that are beneficial to us in much less obvious ways than as to fill our bellies.
Pictured above, the handsome, but inedible to humans Turkey Tail Fungus (Trametes versicolor) growing on dead tree trunk. This species doesn't kill plants, but grows on decaying plant material.
To the gardener, many fungi spell impending doom. Honey Fungus for example is a widely hated killer of woody plants, running from garden to garden taking out mature trees and shrubs in the straight lines that it travels. While we can eat the fruiting bodies (Mushrooms) of Honey Fungus (Armillaria mellea), it is the underground mycelium (often referred to a 'Black Bootlaces' (pictured below travelling up the trunk of a tree killing it)) that spread the fungus from one plant to the next. These travel through the soil largely unnoticed until they interact with a woody plant and begin the slow, but inexorable journey towards death.
It isn't, by any means, all doom and gloom however, as there are many fungi species that greatly strengthen plants, especially woody plants forming symbiotic relationships with them to aid root development, water and nutrient capture and the overall vigour of the plant. Mycorrhizal fungi can be said to be beneficial fungi, supporting plant root development and significantly impacting on the overall success of plants they bond with. There are different Mycorrhizal species depending on the type of plant they are 'working' with and the pH of the soil. In return for helping with moisture and nutrient absorption for the plant, they take sugars from the plant. Together they prosper.
Mycorrhizal Fungi exist in your gardens already bonded to many of the plants established there. As a tool to accelerate establishment, reduce the requirement for additional nutrients to be added to soils and reduce overall water consumption, it is a good idea to add Mycorrhiza to plants at the point of planting them.
Be aware, that chucking a handful of purchased Mycorrhizal fungi into a planting pit, will only really serve to waste your money. The fungus has to make direct contact with the plant roots to have a chance of success, so most are either rubbed onto the roots, or roots dipped into them as they are being planted. I have seen a number of people over the years try pouring it on top of the soil, or mixing it into compost when planting and I'd say most of the money spent purchasing the fungi was thrown away there. I have seen people piercing holes in the soil around the base of established plants and pouring a liquid mix of the fungi and water into the holes. I suspect that too will have limited if any benefit. Best to do when you are planting. Very easy to do and there are good examples online of the difference that application can achieve in terms of plant growth over plants that haven't received any. I would strongly recommend using it when planting Bare Root hedging, Trees and Shrubs, etc. They really do establish better and it is incredibly easy to apply to the roots of these plants before they go into the ground. In my experience, the failure rate of bare root planting is reduced when using it and the establishment rate increases.
For more detail on how the Fungi work, read this article from the RHS (Royal Horticultural Society) CLICK HERE.
There are a handful of companies that produce Mycorrhizal Fungi out there, my favourite is Empathy who produce the well known product Rootgrow. I've used it for years and it is consistently good stuff (they don't even pay me to have to say that, it really is). Here's a link to their website to see their product range, which can be found in most garden centres and nurseries as well. CLICK HERE.
My plan is to undertake an experiment this year comparing plants treated with mycorrhizal fungi at point of planting against those without to see just how much difference there can be between the two. Watch this space for progress.
Don't be a mushroom and lost in the dark; understand the process of how these magical fungi work by watching this short video.
NOTE - Never eat anything that you are not entirely sure to be edible. Many fungal species look similar and experience and understanding is required to prevent injury and potentially death. Even edible species (like Honey Fungus) may not be edible to all who consume it. If in doubt, NEVER try.