We have an extraordinary diversity of fungi species in this country, in fact, an unknown number, for there are many here that have yet to be identified and named!
Ecologically, fungi are both fascinating and fundamentally important, playing a vital role in the carbon cycle.
Unlike plants, fungi have no chlorophyll, cannot photosynthesise and so have to get their food from other sources.
They produce spores, not seeds, to reproduce. When fungi infect dead wood, plant debris and animal dung, they break cellulose and lignin down into simple sugars.
These sugars can then be taken up, not just by themselves, but by other nearby plants as well.
There is a whole group of fungi called “termite fungi”, which have a symbiotic relationship with termites.
Some termite species actually cultivate these in their mounds in “termite gardens”.
These fungi break down the walls of these gardens, made of cellulose and lignin, making the resultant nutrients digestible by the worker termites.
Many fungi, known as mycorrhizal fungi, have similarly mutually beneficial relationships with trees and plants, helping them take up nitrogen, phosphates and other nutrients through their own network of tubular structures called hyphae which they put out underground in the soil, in turn developing into a kind of mat called a mycelium.
With the right conditions, in the rainy season, the mycelium will put out fruit — and this is the mushroom we see.
In return, the plant or tree supplies the fungus with sugars, made through its own photosynthesis in its leaves.
Mychorrhizal fungi are very widespread and extremely important in the miombo woodlands that typify southern Africa.
As an example — if you’ve planted a msasa tree or a mountain acacia, in your suburban garden and you find it just never seems to thrive and grow, it could well be that the soil around it is missing the all-important fungi with which it has such a symbiotic relationship.
Some fungi can be used in medicine
If you go out into the bush, collect a small amount of soil from under a msasa or mountain acacia, bring it back and integrate it with the soil under your own tree. chances are, it will do rather better!
Without the presence of both fungi and termites, we would see an unending build-up of dead material, locked inside which, were so many valuable nutrients required to sustain the circle of life and balance of nature.
Some of the really tiny fungi, of course, can save lives. Since the discovery the fungus penicillium could kill bacteria, medicine has never been the same and our health and life expectancy have hugely benefitted from fungi that can be used medicinally to fight infections. Some are even being researched for their potential to fight cancer.
While my lay-person’s interest in fungi has been a fascination with their appearance, their relationship with termites and trees and their photogenic qualities, for researcher Cathy Sharp, fungi are a life-long passion.
This was a truly fascinating day. Cathy’s enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge were infectious and the group who walked with her thoroughly enjoyed themselves and learnt much about fungi and their importance.
On whether or not a wild mushroom is edible, Cathy’s advice is very strict — “Just don’t go there!” Many a tragic fatality has come out of the misidentification of mushrooms, so it’s simply not worth taking a risk.