FROM fairy rings and toadstools to their purported healing powers, mushrooms have been venerated, eaten and worshipped for centuries.
One of the most tangible fossil records of mushroom use by humans was found on the 5,000 year old body of the so-called "Iceman" who was fond frozen solid high up in the Italian Alps. The Iceman was carrying two different mushroom species that scientists hypothesize he used to cure stomach problems.
The Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma lucidum), has been used by the Chinese for 2,000 years as a healing remedy for allergies, asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes, immune boosting and some cancers.
Modern western medical science is still trying to confirm the healing claims of Reishi mushrooms.
Many Chinese herbalists prescribe mushroom concoctions as aphrodisiacs, a claim unsupported by Western medicine.
There has also been an incorrectly held gardening myth that fungi, mushrooms, or fungus (as they are sometimes incorrectly called), are bad for the soil, a sign of decay and something that must be controlled.
It is important to remember that no single method that can accurately and safely identify if a mushroom is safe to eat. No person should ever eat a mushroom from the wild without first having a knowledgeable mycologist identify one of the 5,000 or more species of mushrooms in B.C., to confirm if the mushroom is edible or poisonous, and many mushrooms are highly toxic and poisonous.
In the world of gardening, mushrooms should generally be seen as a benefit to the garden because the mushroom is only the above-ground portion of a large underground network of life-giving fungal strands called hyphae. Fungi are microscopic cells that usually grow as long threads called hyphae (essentially roots).
Fungal hyphae group into large masses called mycelium which can grow underground for a few metres to hundreds of metres and live for a 1,000 years.
Fungi build soil heath by digesting organic matter and releasing nutrients into the soil for plants, soil organisms and the soil's biochemical processes. Fungi also bind soil particles together creating beneficial soil structures called soil aggregates which allow the soil to breathe, retain water and nutrients.
Several species of fungi are known to compete with plant diseases, thereby controlling their spread. Some fungi decompose various types of pollution.
Of specific interest in grape orchards, coniferous forests and some types of vegetable production is a group of fungi that forms a beneficial relationship with plants.
Mycorrhizal fungi is a mutalistic fungi that colonizes plant roots and exchanges carbon and carbohydrates from the plant in return for phosphorus, nitrogen and micronutrients gained by the fungi's decomposition of organic matter.
The extensive spread of fungal hyphae into the soil allows the plant to access a wider network of roots than the plant can provide itself.
Our coastal Douglas fir tree for example relies on mycorrhizal fungi to help the tree obtain nutrients from the soil. And if you have ever planted Douglas fir directly into new topsoil you may have noticed that the tree struggles to grow for several years, until the population of mycorrhizal fungi establishes and assists the tree's growth.
There is so much scientific information on the benefits of fungal growth in soils that I do not have time to cover it in this column.
There are good internet sources that are reputable and reliable places to find information on fungi and mushrooms including:
? E-Flora BC, which is a volunteer-driven GIS-based biogeographic atlas of the vascular plants, fungi, slime molds, algae, bryophytes and lichens of British Columbia which can be found at www. geog.ubc.ca/biodiversity/ eflora/fungi.html.
? The Vancouver Mycological Society (www.vanmyco.com) is also specifically focused on learning and educating the public about mushrooms.
? The Pacific Northwest Key Council (www.svims. ca/council/keys.htm) also has information and pictures of mushrooms.
But by the far the most proactive leader in the field of fungi in the Pacific Northwest, and perhaps the world, would have to Paul Stamets. His webpage, www.fungi.com, shows the real-world benefits and potential commercial applications of fungi.
Stamet's presentation on TED.com at this link: www. blog.ted.com/2008/05/06/ paul_stamets/, called "6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World" is a real eye opener. It describes the benefits and underused potentiality of fungi to solve modern problems like pollution remediation, human disease control and the undesirable and environmentally damaging effects of chemical pesticide use.
If Stamets can successfully commercialize his patent that uses fungi to kill termites and potentially other insect pests, with no negative side affects for the environment, it will cause a paradigm shift in modern pest control.
Remember that fall is one of the peak mushroom spotting seasons, so if you see them, don't eat them - but realize they are benefiting your plants and garden.
Todd Major is a journeyman horticulturist and chief horticultural instructor at the University of British Columbia Botanical Garden. For advice contact him at email@example.com.