Garden Notes: The fungal kingdom

And with the rain come the mushrooms.

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Local goldenrod: commonplace but with redeeming qualities.- Susan Safford

Each formerly choked traffic bottleneck that one breezes through helps unwind the summer’s accumulated tensions. The sun is out, and the golden days of September unfold: warming sun, deep shadows, and pristine white cumulus sailing overhead in bright blue skies, accompanied by the trill of meadowsong’s increasing crescendo. The September sun gleams on every leaf, ricocheting and glancing magically.

The two to three inches of rain the Island received Sept. 6 were but a weak spritzing compared with those astounding hurricane monsoons, but provide a comparison that helps us relate to Houston, Florida, and the Caribbean.

We must not dismiss research on unstable climate and how we might “breeze through” those kinds of problems ourselves, in another season. Much that we take for granted, more than H-2B and J-1 visas, depends on a functionally fine line: crop and food security, supply flows, and paying to repair storm damage: bit.ly/irmacutspower.

Hurricane damage to upscale waterfront resorts is irrelevant; the little guy is always hit harder and loses more, and the rest of us have to pay for everything, ultimately. We must take ocean warming and climate instability seriously.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that rains bring mushrooms. Rains also bring flooding and contamination of valuable land and buildings, with fungi, molds, and leaked contaminants rendering them toxic and uninhabitable. However, the very same fungal mechanisms may be able to bio-remediate damaged assets.

In “Teaming with Fungi” (Timber Press, 2017), Jeff Lowenfels endeavors to teach how fungal and mycorrhizal associations underpin most life in and on the earth. If they are present in their nonpathogenic forms, plants and life on earth flourish. They assist gardeners and all growers to achieve their aims. If they are not present, soils become barren and unproductive.

Paul Stamets’ classic “Mycelium Running” (TenSpeed Press, 2005), further enlarges upon the issue of bio-remediation using fungi. Ask for them both at the library and learn more.

The background is stranger but less obvious. Until fairly recently, fungi were considered to be part of the plant kingdom, although nonvascular, but that has changed, and now the fungal kingdom is seen as one of the planet’s primordial groups of living organisms.

The mushroom we harvest is only a small but visible expression of the fungus: a fruiting body, or sort of flower. The rest is the fungus’ underground mycelium, which, according to Wikipedia, is “the vegetative part of a fungus or fungus-like bacterial colony, consisting of a mass of branching, thread-like hyphae.”

This mycelial structure is very fine and small, although enormous and capable of gaining access to soil nutrients that plants’ roots cannot. A mycorrhiza is a symbiotic association between a fungus and the roots of a vascular host plant, and is usually (but not always) mutualistic. Mycorrhizal fungi and their mycelia are capable of remediating serious conditions arising from erosion, radiation, and chemical and mold contamination, in addition to holding promise in pharmacology.

Goldenrod

For the backyard gardener observing a sunlit clump of goldenrod, evidence of the presence of pollinators is right under our noses; not only pollinators but also those that prey upon them, such as assassin bugs and spiders. These composite flowers are teeming, and teaming, with insect life.

There is much concern about pollinators, deservedly so. Many results of human cleverness have had negative consequences for pollinators’ ability to play their roles in the essential processes of the natural world.

A belated recognition of what the implications of that might be for the humans has helped raise the profile of the humble world of myriad insects in this respect.

Large swaths of open land on Martha’s Vineyard are, at the moment, covered in flowering goldenrod. Luckily for all those pollinators and their predators, Martha’s Vineyard is home to about 30 goldenrods and a closely allied species, some of which go by the name solidago, and others euthamia. Fields and roadsides billow with rich golden masses.

Goldenrod can be weedy and greedy, and is known to colonize with the help of allelopathic substances secreted by its rhizomes. Allelopathy is a kind of devious plant misdemeanor where one plant group’s roots emit something that inhibits the growth of other plant groups’ roots.

However, goldenrods’ pollen is too heavy to be windborne; its pollination strategy is those myriad insects that visit the flowers. So one misdemeanor that goldenrod is innocent of is seasonal allergy. The miscreants are flowering grasses and ragweeds, whose pollen becomes airborne now and causes problems for sensitized individuals.

European gardeners have greater admiration for goldenrod as a garden subject than we do, and plant breeders there have selected a number of gardenworthy clones. However, familiarity breeds contempt.

Many North American gardeners, myself included, rip out goldenrod when it makes its appearance in “the wrong place,” such as in beds or other garden areas we attempt to prettify. The fuzzy or fluffy seeds alight and grow with speed, often in or next to the crown of the unfortunate plant that intercepted their flight.

Luckily, the Island is not completely prettified, not yet. Many of us here have our own rough backyard areas, where colonies of goldenrod can grow and spread and sustain the insect life, great and small, that we all need. Let goldenrod grow in these settings, behind the shed or the compost pile, or by the mailbox. Mow it down, perhaps much later in the season, when small seed-eating birds have been able to pick over the seedheads.

Polly Hill Arboretum

“Exploring Vines and Lianas”: Todd Rounsaville, PHA curator, gives a lecture Sept. 13, the day before the MV Times’ print edition appears, at 5:30 pm. He explores the evolution and ecological importance of climbing plants, and shares ways to use these plants successfully in home landscapes.