Serious question. Is there anything more magical than a mushroom?
Yes, I know. Mushrooms might not look as pretty as a flower, they may not last as long as a tree, and they tend to be associated with dark, dingy and damp places where nobody really wants to go. But here at Mazi we think it’s high time to give mushrooms their due and start giving them the love they deserve.
Why so mad for mushrooms?
When we talk about mushrooms, what we are actually really talking about are fungi. Fungi are the interface between life and death, between organic and inorganic on this planet. They are the ultimate recyclers, breaking down the life’s leftovers into the building blocks of new life. Through the release of enzymes, these ‘myco-magicians’ work their magic to unlock nutrients for the rest of the ecosystem, doing the dirty work necessary to build soils and healthy systems. In fact, most plants depend on symbiotic relationships with fungi, such as mycorrhizae. Without our fungal friends, all ecosystems on this planet would fail.
What’s more, fungi achieve all of these ecological services whilst also providing a delicious edible fruiting body (a ‘mushroom’), many of which have important medicinal properties.
And yet mushrooms are as magical as they are mysterious. Despite the fact that fungi underpin life on this planet, relatively little is known about this mysterious kingdom.
A match made in heaven - Mushrooms and Agroforestry
Fungi and forests go hand in hand. When you walk through a forest, you may not realise that beneath your feet, you are stepping on miles and miles of fungal filaments, a ‘mycelial net’ that fungi have woven beneath your feet, connecting the trees and plants in many weird and wonderful ways which we are only just beginning to understand. So much so, that networks of soil mycelium are often referred to as the ‘internet’ of the soil, and have been shown to transmit information and help the exchange of much needed nutrients and water between trees.
One of the most important relationships between fungi and trees is with mycorrhizal fungi, part of the ‘symbiont’ category of fungi. Mycorrhizal fungi make symbiotic connections with the tree by wrapping their ‘hyphae’ (long fungal filaments) around the roots where they form an exchange interface. Here, they strike a deal with the trees. The fungi offer up nutrients that they alone can unlock from dead matter, in exchange for vital sugars that the trees produce through photosynthesis, a process that fungi can’t do. This makes a ‘win-win’ deal between the two, a perfect partnership where both parties come out on top. Mycorrhizal fungi, thanks to the helping hand of their forest friends, also create some of the yummiest and most sought after mushrooms, such as the chanterelle (Cantharellus cibarius) and various Boletus species.
Amazingly, virtually all of plants on this planet rely on these kind of relationships for their healthy growth. This makes mycorrhizal fungi a vital tool for agroforestry farms to harness the full potential of regenerative farm systems. Moreover, evidence is emerging that contrary to popular belief, it is due to these fungi (and not trees) that most of the carbon is sequestered in Northern boreal forests, making them a key player in efforts to combat climate change.
Mushroom cultivation in agroforestry systems
Aside from the symbionts, there’s another group of fungi which are very interesting for cultivation in agroforestry systems, and that’s the ‘saprophytes’.
The saprophytes are the decomposers, designed to colonise dead organic matter and break it down into plant-ready nutrients, making them important players in the making of composts and the degradation of mulches. They also just happen to be one of the most interesting types of mushroom for cultivation, including mushrooms like the oyster, portobello and shiitake, which makes growing them a perfect complementary practice alongside agroforestry both as a decomposer and a profitable crop.
Making our own Mazi mushroom magic…
Here at Mazi, we have recently started our own exciting mushroom experiments to test ways we can connect mushrooms to agroforestry, both by integrating edible mushrooms in agroforestry systems and using fungi as a tool for the regeneration of agricultural landscapes.
We are firstly exploring the potential of mushrooms as a viable intermediary income in between waiting for your trees to grow and fruit. For this, we have started to cultivate oyster mushrooms, in a controlled environment in a room in our home, in the hope that we might be able to soon sell them locally, as well as add to our growing list of food we grow for ourselves here on the farm. We’re specifically aiming to find ways that this can be done in a Greek context, with the resources available here and the options we have for growing in a Mediterranean climate, with a view to ultimately creating a replicable model of a low input and low tech way to get involved growing mushrooms from the comfort of your own home.
With an easily observable and controlled mushroom room, these experiments are also providing us with an ideal way to learn about the life cycle of the mushroom, helping us to further understand the ways in which our fungal friends can help us on our land and be an ally in regeneration.
We have also started colonising logs of Oak and Eucalyptus with plugs of shiitake mushrooms. Given that mushrooms are well adapted to life growing under the forest canopy, we have left them beneath the shade of trees to grow, which makes them ideal for incorporation into an agroforestry farm. This is our first time playing with this type of cultivation, and we are excited to see how it works out.
There’s a reason there is ‘fun’ in fungi, and the fun is just getting started here on Mazi!
Thanks for reading,