First Person: Fungi can help us or harm us but they’re always fascinating

While stepping over the large roots holding up the Merrickville forest last August, cracking twigs as I walked, I stumbled upon a body. Not human, but once alive all the same. A rabbit corpse laid in front of me, its pungent smell yet to be dragged from its bones like the coyotes did to its […]
Photo: Mathew Dicsi
Ottawa-based forager, Gabe Roulston, 19, picks a young meadow mushroom.

While stepping over the large roots holding up the Merrickville forest last August, cracking twigs as I walked, I stumbled upon a body.

Not human, but once alive all the same. A rabbit corpse laid in front of me, its pungent smell yet to be dragged from its bones like the coyotes did to its flesh.

Yet out of this horrid display stemmed a small show of beauty in the form of mushrooms, growing around the body, feeding off its nutrients. Despite the disgusting scent of rot, I couldn’t help but appreciate how beautiful nature’s recyclers are.

I have always been fascinated by fungus, but only fell in love with it ethrough early high school. Originally, mushrooms were this weird, creepy, unlovable plant that I would kick every time I saw them.

The ones around my home, and most kickable, were the Coprinus comatus – otherwise known as the Shaggy ink cap. These mushrooms look like they perpetually shed their skin while getting blacker and blacker the lower down the cap they go. While edible, they begin to decay once picked, and they’ll turn to an odorous black sludge within 10 hours. Seeing this when I was eight years old left me with nightmares for weeks.

What if I turned into sludge too? Would it hurt? Can I still watch my cartoons as sludge?

My creepy feelings around mushrooms were proven valid in recent years with fungus being adopted by the horror medium with shows like The Last of Us and The Blob along with books like What Moves The Dead by T.kingfisher and Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.

“There are thousands of mushrooms and millions of fungi, most of which we don’t see,” said Charles Naesmith, an Algonquin College professor who teaches the general elective course Fungus Among Us. “Like an apple tree shows apples, the mushroom is the fruit that fungus decides to show us.”

Some of these mushrooms are downright nasty, like the Hydnellum peckii, otherwise known as a bleeding tooth. A fitting name for this white, porous mushroom loosely resembles a tooth. The only difference is this tooth exudes a blood-like liquid to spread its spores. While we don’t know exactly why this liquid is red, it is speculated the colour helps to attract bugs who then spread their spores even more.

“When people think of fungus, they think of gross and weird,” said Brooke Caicco, an interior design student.

“These are organisms that aren’t interested in our interest of them, they just do what they do,” said Naesmith. “They can harm us, and they can help us, but they are what they are.”

A crop of witches hats sprouting out from the Merrickville Forest
A crop of witches hats sprouting out from the Merrickville Forest. Photo credit: Mathew Dicsi

But the creepiest fungus of all is the Cordyceps.

Most commonly found in ants, Cordyceps will infiltrate the nervous system of an insect before cutting off the brain’s connection to the muscles. Once the creature is immobile, the Cordyceps release chemicals in the brain, taking control of the creatures’ movement and bringing them to an area with perfect humidity and temperature for the Cordyceps to grow.

The creature will be forced to chomp down as hard as possible to lock their body in place before the Cordyceps begins to bloom, sprouting a cream coloured mushroom from the head of its victim, and spreading its spores. Through this entire, excruciating experience, the insect stays alive and conscious, but the Cordyceps stole the wheel.

“You’ve got a fungus that in it’s own evolutionary pathway, alters socialized insects like ants,” said Naesmith. “It doesn’t just kill them, but changes what insects do to the benefit of them.”

If you were thinking Cordyceps would make a great antagonist for a thriller, you’d be right.

With the recent Last of Us television adaptation, Cordyceps have been getting a lot of love. The show takes place in a postapocalyptic world following a zombie-like infection caused by Cordyceps infecting humans These zombies lose control once infected, as the Cordyceps’ hyphae (roots) burrow their way to the brain from underneath the skin, taking control of the muscles. Once fully infected, the no-longer-human sprouts these greyish orange mushrooms around the head, the same way real Cordyceps would to insects.

“It’s scary real,” said Gabe Roulston, an Ottawa-area forager. “We eat a lot of fungus as humans and the human body is unpredictable. Who’s to say Cordyceps won’t evolve and affect us too.”

The Last of Uslove is far reaching, even hitting Algonquin College in this years Halloween costume contest where first place went to Grace Thompson, an illustration concept student, and her zombie costume including the Cordyceps growing out of her head.

Though some find fear in fungus, others find beauty.

“Seeing fungus makes me imagine a weird world where people could live in it. It’s a whole new world,” said Roulston.

What is strange to some, is safe to others.

“Mushrooms give off a homely vibe,” said Caicco. “The Smurfs had the right idea.”

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