A forest accomplishes with effortless ease what a gardener labors every day to produce: growth. Compared to a carefully managed vegetable garden, natural growth in the wild seems almost criminally easy. A forest manages to produce tons of biomass predictably and reliably every year, without any application of fertilizer or backbreaking weeding. The only caveat is that the produce of a forest isn’t tailored to human consumption; it can be eaten but not by us. Even so, a gardener must wonder why nature doesn’t ever seem to run out of steam. Modern agricultural practices necessitate the addition of over 150 pounds per acre of nitrogen fertilizer to get optimal yield from corn fields. A forest never draws in nutrients from an outside source and yet never seems to exhaust its own resources.
This apparent mystery can be solved through the magic of nutrient cycling. Not all of the biomass in a forest environment is living. Dead organic manner is broken down into organic compounds, which are usable by the base producers of that environment This is a trick without which agriculture of any kind would be impossible. Human beings, and in fact most animals, are incapable of converting most plant-produced organic molecules into usable nutrients. The compound that makes up the majority of plant biomass is cellulose, a linear biopolymer of glucose molecules, which is the most abundant organic molecule on earth. In order for this hyper-prevalent molecule to be used, it first needs to be broken down, and the only organisms capable of doing that are bacteria and fungi. The lowly mushroom forms the background of nutrient cycling and enables the constant refreshment of wild ecosystems.
There are many other practical applications of fungi, including bioremediation, medicine, and even creation of foods we take for granted every day, like tofu and bread. Even so, many Americans view mushrooms as 'gross' and file them all under ‘poisonous’. This reputation is undeserved and a product of simple unfamiliarity. The next time you see mushrooms poking up out of the grass of your yard after a light rain, don't squeal and shy away. Take a moment and say, “Thank you.”