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Mycorrhizae The Good Fungus

By Milo Shammas, Dr. Earth
Photograph courtesy of Dr. Earth

Imagine a giant underground network, a transportation system, complex by nature yet simple in concept. In the network, all established plants grow in harmony together, sharing nutrients with each other, the plant on the east side of your house sharing nutrients with Bob's tree across the street. How can this be? Mycorrhizae make it possible. The largest biomass on earth is a network of mycorrhizal hyphae in a mature established forest. It is invisible to the human eye and much smaller than any obvious root system. These threads of life share the nutrients with each other. The tall evergreen tree provides nutrients to the small fern growing at its base through mycorrhizae. The giant flowering tree on the west side of your yard provides nutrients to your tomato plants on the east side of the garden through mycorrhizae. The essence of mycorrhizae's role is to create an extensive network of microscopic filaments that facilitates nutrient transfer among plants. Mycorrhizae help absorb nutrients, assist in drought tolerance and create ideal garden soil structure, soil that drains, breathes and retains optimum moisture. The near perfect "coffee-grounds" soil texture we often find in fastidiously maintained organic gardens comes from long-term mycorrhizal soil activity.

Using a biologically active soil or fertilizer to introduce mycorrhizae to your garden makes a huge difference in the health and performance of all the plants. This is why healthy soils are teeming with mycorrhizae. On the evolutionary scale, they are as important to the health of all plants as plants are important to us.

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The Bridge for Life

Mycorrhizae were the bridge for plants millions of years ago when they first made the transition from water to land, scientists believe. The earth was a harsh environment with little nutrients available to plants. The earth was salty, the sun was hot and soils were void of biological activity, creating a rocky, harsh environment for plants. Dr. Mike Amaranthus, a friend and colleague, is a leading world expert on mycorrhizae. He says, "It is believed mycorrhizae are one of the primary reasons plants were able to survive the drastic transition from the nutrient-rich oceans to this harsh, nutrient-poor soil environment."

If hearty mycorrhizae gathered nutrients from the soil for plants during this harsh transitional period, imagine what they can do for your backyard plants today. Here is how mycorrhizae contribute and why they are needed.

Mycorrhizae are beneficial soil fungi that form a symbiotic relationship with your backyard plants and about 90 percent of all plants on earth. They penetrate growing plant root tissues, surround the root mass and extend far into the surrounding soil, encompassing a much greater volume of soil than that occupied by the plant’s own root system. The fungi's long thread-like mycelia capture moisture and nutrients from the soil, particularly nitrogen and phosphorous. The fungi consume these nutrients, but, more importantly, they generously share them with the roots of the host plant. In return, the host plant provides the fungi with photosynthesized nutrients such as the simple sugars (sucrose, fructose and glucose) to keep them energized and viable.

Mycorrhizae are also important soil-binding agents, which adds to friable soil texture. Countless long filaments called hyphae tend to accumulate in the soil over a period, persisting for months or even years. Hyphae filaments tend to hold together larger soil particles, particularly the sand-sized fraction. The filaments tend to have sticky surfaces from sugars processed and exuded by the mycorrhizae.  Also, the tips of developing root hairs secrete a similarly sticky, plant-produced substance. Together, these sticky materials enable the hyphae to strongly adhere to soil particles, physically binding and enmeshing them together to form better soil for growing. This condition increases in the root zone, encouraging further root growth, which in turn attracts more mycorrhizae, leading to a more stabilizing aggregation of soil particles. The cycle repeats and supports the creation of desirable soil for gardeners.

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