The Mycorrhizal Fungi Network
Ever wonder if plants really communicate? Or how they do?
In the past few decades researchers have found that there really is a “wood wide web” that allows plants to share information and resources. That name was coined in an article in the journal Nature in 1997, based on research done by Canadian scientist, Dr. Suzanne Simard, into mycelium networks or mycorrhizal fungi.
The word “mycorhhizal” is from the Greek—myco=fungus and rhiza=root. These fungus networks colonize tree roots, as well as the roots of shrubs and grasses. There are many different types of myccorhizae, and specific plants resonate with specific fungi.
Fungi receive food from their plant hosts in the form of sugars such as glucose and sucrose. In return, fungal partners provide the plants with water and nutrients such as the minerals phosphorus and nitrogen. Plants with fungal partners are able to receive up to twice the nutrition compared with plants not part of a mycorrhizal network.
In addition, the mycorrhizal network can send messages alerting nearby plants to a pest invasion, so the shrubs or trees can mount a defensive response. Trees create compounds in response to invasion that taste bad to the invader, such as tannins in oaks or salicylic acid in willows.
Fungus root networks expand the reach of plant roots and intertwine plants in a mutually supportive system. Plants in arid and nutrient poor zones seem to benefit the most. Many trees in an arid forest (like ours) wouldn’t survive without the support of extra water and nutrients delivered by the mycorrhizae. At the same time, the fungus root network can be fragile—the tiny thread-like hairs that form a mat to connect plants just below the surface of the soil are delicate. They can be disturbed by tilling or any activity that tears up the earth. Plants can then become isolated, not receiving adequate water or nutrition until the fungal network repairs itself.
For more about forest health and how trees communicate, read The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben.