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A few words with Paul Stamets

Interview with Paul Stamets.

Paul Stamets works to restore harmony and balance to nature using mushrooms. His most recent book called Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Save the World is a manual about mycorestoration, or using mushroom mycelium to clean up toxic waste sites, heavy metals, pesticides, etc. from soil. Oregon Tilth Certified Organic inspector Andrew Black spoke to Paul about fungi and soils.

Andrew Black – In your book, Mycelium Running, you write how companion cultivation of mushrooms and vegetables was studied on your farm in Washington State. You said that the vegetable yield was four to six times higher in beds where oyster mushrooms, Hypsizygus ulmarius were paired with plants like Brussel sprouts and broccoli of the brassicacea family. Yet different species of oyster mushrooms, Pleurotus ostreatus had a diminished affect on crop yields. Are some mushrooms bad for crops? What happened?

Paul Stamets – It is important that you pair beneficial fungi with plants. Through natural selection, there are many good candidates. Yet, you can’t paint the canvas with one brush by saying all mushroom producing fungi are good for plants. Fungi and plants have created symbiotic associations to their mutual benefit. The lesson of nature is that there are optimal and less optimal partners. We found Hypsizygus ulmarius helped several garden vegetables while Pleurotus ostreatus suppressed growth. Some fungi help; some don’t. That’s just the way life is.

AB – Downy mildew on squash and other cucurbits, fusarium wilt and leaf spots in tomatoes, white mold stem rot in soybeans and countless other plant diseases are caused by fungi. What are the risks of using fungi on a farm to enhance fertility or detoxify soils? Does it help increase the likelihood of fungal diseases attacking crops?

PS – I think they can actually decrease the likelihood of fungal diseases by fortifying the immune systems of the plants by selecting the fungal symbiots that will potentiate resistance.

For instance, when you pair parasitic and saprophytic fungi in the same petri dish, they battle it out. As an example, the saprophyte, the clustered woodlover, Hypholoma capnoides, will overwhelm the parasitic honey mushroom, Armillaria mellea, the cause of laminated root rot. Studies show that a corridor of planted Hypholomas can prevent the parasitic Armillarias from spreading across a forestland.

AB –Some organic farmers use mycorrhizal soil inoculants to build fertility in their fields. How do mycorrhizal products for farming work, and are they all the same?

PS – I can’t tell you if they are all the same, because I don’t know everyone’s product. There is a ubiquity factor in Glomus intraradices, a mycorrhizal species that associates with 70 to 80 percent of plants around the world. It could be argued that there will be regional specificity factors with these fungi, to some degree. But panspermia and the movement of microbe spores around the world is also the way of nature. So as we mix up the genome, then these organisms are also being mixed up. The mycorrhizal fungi that I would recommend if you are a West Coaster, is that you get it from a West Coast supplier, that is sourcing it nearest to your bioregion. If you become skilled at mushroom identification, you can collect your own mycorrhizal spores from nature. Every gardener out there, who has any chunk of land, will have mycorrhizal fungi underfoot. If they can find them, especially these puffball like mushrooms mature when they ripen with spores, then they can use site-specific mycorrhizal fungi from their own property, which is what I advocate. In absence of that skill base, then most commercial products I’ve seen out there do very well. But I can’t say all of them do.

AB –In the last year and a half I have inspected over 150 organic farms. But only a handful of farmers mention fungi as part of their soil fertility programs. Why do you suppose that is?

PS –Because it’s a quickly emerging field that is being recognized as being useful by agronomists. I think this is the wave of the future - a mycelial wave of consciousness that’s emerging throughout the world as people begin to understand that mycelium is the construct of the food web. In soils, there can be more than eight miles of mycelium in a cubic inch. Mycelial networks form microcavities that become homes for all kinds of microbes. They aerate the soils and help hold water. The opposite of which are biologically anemic, anaerobic soils that are compacted. Once people understand that we live in constant symbiosis with all these microorganisms, and that fungal networks create a mosaic of cells that honeycomb through the soils and set the stage, creating homes for all these extra organisms, we will see many more people tapping into these plant allies.

Science progresses in leaps and bounds. There are long periods where people don’t make a revolutionary advance. Now, I think we have entered into a new phase, the mycelial revolution. Using mycelium can greatly empower sustainability and permaculture practices, habitat restoration, and ultimately mitigate global warming by increasing carbon sequestration in soils.

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