Behold, the mushroom: fruit of life

25th July 2020 | Alison Turner

Mushrooms: they’re ace in a boscaiola, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find mushrooms play a much larger role in our daily lives than adding some earthy oomph to a pasta sauce – they’re the very model of sustainability, and a critical component of life on Earth itself.

Beyond being a culinary staple, mushrooms may hold the answers to some of the modern world’s most pressing problems – they can cure disease, ease psychological suffering, stimulate neurons to regrow, strengthen the immune system, store carbon, reduce viruses in bee populations and even soak up oil spills. There are thousands of different species of mushroom that we know of, with possibly thousands more yet to be discovered. And experts are only just scratching the surface of the many benefits that mushrooms can offer us – to heal our minds, our bodies and our planet.

Welcome to the wonderful world of fungi.

Mushrooms are actually the “fruit” of fungi, and are only one small part of what is an astonishingly elaborate and powerful web of life. A new film has dived into this labyrinthine world, exploring the beauty and complexity of fungi and taking viewers deep underground to discover the mysterious subterranean world of the mycelium – the colossal network of fungi that lies underneath our very feet – and its fruit, the mushroom. Fantastic Fungi is a story that begins 3.5 billion years ago and, through the eyes of experts, tells of how fungi make the soil that supports life, connecting vast systems of roots from plants and trees all over the planet, like an underground internet.

The mycelium – vast and universal.

“If plants are critical for our survival, giving us healthy food, medicine and shelter, what do plants need? Soil,” says Fantastic Fungi director Louis Schwartzberg. “And, where does soil come from? Fungi – a kingdom of life that connects us all.

“Fungi can clean the environment, heal our bodies and even shift our consciousness. Yet the biggest discovery for me, beyond the science and challenge of making the invisible visible, is that they are the model for how life can flourish, a shared economy under the ground, an intercellular network that shares nutrients for ecosystems to thrive.”

The film explores the remarkable intricacy of the fungi kingdom, and demonstrates how it connects all of humanity with the natural world. It’s truly awe-inspiring stuff, but what is most mind-blowing is not how much we know about mushrooms, but how much there must be yet to discover. Yep, we’re just getting started.

Caps off to the super-nutritious ’shroom.

A nutritional powerhouse

Once you’ve watched the film and whipped up those mushrooms on toast you were craving, you’ll be pleased to discover that there’s some new research to show that your post-movie snack is doing your body some serious favours.

A world-first global review has revealed the full extent of the health benefits of the mushroom. The review was commissioned by Hort Innovation, the grower-owned, not-for-profit research and development corporation for Australia’s horticulture industry, and looked at the Agaricus bisporus mushroom – the most commonly consumed mushroom that includes button, Portobello, cup, flat and Swiss brown varieties.

Nutrition Research Australia, who undertook the review, investigated their key bioactive components and health effects on humans, and found health benefits to include:

• Increased vitamin D levels
• Reduced inflammation
• Increased fullness and reduced hunger
• Improved gut health
• Lowered risk of ovarian cancer and may help to manage prostate cancer
• Improved cardiometabolic markers
• Beneficial effects on immune function

The magic of mushrooms goes far beyond their tastiness.

The review also found that:

• Swapping the same volume of beef for mushrooms in a meal can help to lower calorie intake, with no difference to appetite.
• UV-exposed mushrooms (such as mushrooms put in sunlight) can be as effective for increasing vitamin D levels as a vitamin D supplement.
• Mushrooms cooked in extra virgin olive oil may help improve markers of heart health.
• Mushrooms contain a unique prebiotic fibre that feeds your gut bacteria.

“This research program involved screening more than 5000 studies across the globe – a massive task,” says Nutrition Research Australia CEO, Flavia Fayet-Moore. “The sheer volume of information that exists on the humble mushroom is astonishing.”

Gourmet mushrooms have a growing fan base.

An urban mushroom army

Edible mushrooms are not just super nutritious – they’re one of the most sustainable food sources on the planet. This is partly for the simple reason that you can grow them pretty much anywhere, with minimal resources and space. The flexible fungi can easily provide an abundant hyperlocal food source that can offer both the nutritional and the flavour benefits of fresh, locally-sourced produce.

And while mushrooms dominate in the natural world, they are also increasingly finding a place in our cities and suburbs. All over Australia, urban mushroom farms large and small are cropping up, with many growers even taking sustainability a step further and using products that would otherwise go to waste as a “substrate” to grow their mushies in. Sprout Stack, which grows hyperlocal micro herbs and salad greens for supermarkets in the Sydney area, uses waste coconut husk – which has been used to grow the greens in – to grow beautiful oyster mushrooms.

You can set up a vertical mushroom farm pretty much anywhere.

Over in Perth, The Mushroom Guys use hardwood sawdust waste from the Western Australian timber industry to grow gourmet mushrooms for the hospitality industry. Mushrooms grow naturally on hardwood, so this closely replicates natural growing mediums while also diverting waste from landfill. The Mushroom Guys’ produce is now in high demand among chefs in the local area, with their range – which includes Blue, Pink, Yellow, Phoenix and King Oyster mushrooms, as well as Shiitake, Chestnut and Lion’s Mane – harvested and delivered crisp and fresh on the same day.

Also in WA, Life Cykel began using waste coffee grounds – which a coffee-loving nation like Australia has tonnes of – to grow mushrooms. In a beautiful “closed loop” circular economy, Life Cykel began exchanging fresh mushrooms for coffee grounds with cafes and restaurants in Perth and Fremantle, before expanding their operations to the coffee capital of Australia – Melbourne. From there, the business has grown to offer everything from grow-your-own mushroom kits to educational programs for school children about sustainable food production. Life Cykel now also offers mushroom protein powders, mushroom liquid extracts and even mushroom chai tea.

Build it, and they will grow: a vertical mushroom farm.

Shroom to move

Urban mushroom growers use vertical farming methods, which calls for significantly less energy, space and water than normal farming methods. While the resources required to grow mushrooms are minimal compared to other forms of food production, the results can be spectacular, and some dilettante growers have even gone on to forge entirely new fungi-fuelled careers through their urban mushroom adventures.

Brisbane couple Amy Christensen and Mickey Pascoe were inspired to begin their gourmet mushroom business, Little Acre, with a simple mushroom grow kit that was gifted to Christensen one Christmas. Christensen, a graphic designer, and Pascoe, a teacher, have since given up their previous jobs and now sell a variety of mushrooms – everything from King Brown to Black Pearl – to chefs at local restaurants and cafes, who much prefer the locally-grown produce to the gourmet mushrooms shipped from overseas. The couple has also branched out to sell grow kits, mini farms and mushroom “spawn” (sterilised grain that’s been inoculated with a live mycelium culture), and also run masterclasses and workshops in mushroom growing.

Mushrooms are everywhere… you just need to know where to look.

Aaron Boyer, the founder and “Chief Fungal Wizard” at Urban Kulture, began his mushrooming career by growing mushies in coffee grounds and supplying local eateries and farmers’ markets before branching out to sell spawn to other farmers and run workshops on gourmet mushroom cultivation around the country. Since COVID-19, the workshops have been moved online, so even self-isolating mushroom lovers can learn to “fungify” their lives and grow mushies out of waste mushroom stems, as well as other low-tech methods.

Feeling inspired? Even if you’ve found it hard to keep a house plant alive in the past, growing your own mushrooms at home could be the perfect way for you to discover those previously elusive green thumbs. It could also inspire you to start your own exploration of the fascinating, complex and diverse secret life of fungi. If the mycophiles in Fantastic Fungi are anything to go by, it doesn’t take much before you’re hooked.

So next time you take a walk in your local park or bushland, take a moment to think about the fact that under each step you take there is a thriving, interconnected web of life, thrumming with power and potential. Fungi are everywhere; it was here long before humans walked the Earth, and it’s likely that it will be here long after we have gone.

Want to explore the kingdom of fungi? You can rent Fantastic Fungi online at fantasticfungi.com.

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