When we look at plants around us, it is easy to dismiss them as simple organisms, rooted to the spot, taking what nature throws at them. Having evolved on earth for the last 700 million years, they are far from simple. One of their most fascinating and complex evolutionary developments is their relationships with other organisms. The obvious relationship we see occurring in our gardens all the time is that with the insect pollinator, but it is the relationship with fungi below ground that is the most intriguing.
There are thought to be 5.1 million species of fungi on earth, living in soil, water and other organisms. Some fungi are dangerous to plant life, attacking and killing them, but others are beneficial. The beneficial fungi fall into a category called mycorrhizal fungi. “Mycorrhizal” meaning fungus – root. Plants have developed symbiotic relationships with these fungi, with both parties benefiting from the deal.
Mycorrhizal fungi connect to plant roots and the two organisms become one. In this symbiosis the fungus gains a constant supply of sugars from the plant, and the plant gains an increased root surface area through the mycelium of the fungus. This greater surface area allows for increased water and nutrient uptake from the soil, strengthening the plant.
It is thought that between 80-95% of plants have micorrhizal relationships. Some plants cannot survive without them and orchids are a prime example. Orchid seed is so small and light it is like dust that blows away on the wind. Orchid seed has no endosperm (food reserve) to help it germinate. The only way the embryo in the seed can get enough food to germinate is if it is infected by a mycorrhizal fungus that becomes the seeds root system. Once this bond is formed it remains for life and the two organisms live in harmony.
The latest botanical science is looking into the relationships that trees have with beneficial fungi and how these fungi can be connected to more than one tree, forming a network between trees throughout the world’s forests. The largest living organism on Earth (by area) is thought to be a fungus covering around 2,200 acres in a forest in Oregon, USA. This fungus connects thousands of trees together!
Studies have been carried out proving that trees “communicate” with each other through mycorrhizal networks, a mind blowing silent phenomenon.
If this article has caught your attention and you would like more information about mycorrhizal fungi and how trees communicate, click below for a thought provoking video.