Nature is our greatest teacher, and she never ceases to amaze. Take, for example, the mycelial network: This underground web connects plants and trees, providing nutrients and even serving as a mode for communication. If the first you’ve heard of the mycelial network was in the Fantastic Fungi film, we wanted to offer you a peek into this secret and awe-inspiring world that’s always under foot yet out of sight. By making the invisible visible, we can more profoundly connect with the magic and mystery of mushrooms – and the planet as a whole.
Here are 10 things to know about the mycelial network:
- Mycelium are the unseen parts of mushrooms, long threads hidden beneath the forest floor that serve as “roots” for mushrooms. Think of them as the telephone wires of nature’s communication network. Through this network, plants and trees work with fungi in a symbiotic relationship.
- The network is made of individual hyphae that are truly invisible to the naked eye. They can range from 2 to 20 micrometers in diameter (for reference, the finest human hair is 17 micrometers). A micrometer is one-thousandth of a millimeter!
- Mycelium grows one cell at a time, but they keep branching in all directions – and the mycelial network has more connections than our brain’s neural pathways! The network actually works much like our brains, by using electrical impulses and electrolytes.
- Mycelium can extend for hundreds or even thousands of miles if they are stretched end to end. But since they are so compactly connected, you might find 200 kilometers or more in a single kilogram (2.2 pounds) of soil!
- The mycelial network is a shared economy, where ecosystems flourish without greed. The mycelium underfoot ensures their close-by neighbors have the resources (nutrients, water, etc.) they need to flourish. But they also have formed ways to distribute nutrients across their entire network. Read more about The Feminine Side of the Mycelium Network.
- These fungal colonies even have a “biomass recycling” program in place. Mushrooms are nature’s cleaners, breaking down what’s left behind by humans and other organisms – and doing their best to leave the earth better than they found it.
- German forest ranger Peter Wohlleben, author of The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate — Discoveries From a Secret World, coined the term “the Wood Wide Web” since mycelium is how trees communicate with each other. By sending electrical signals through the fungal network underground, trees can learn, remember, nurse one another and even keep long-dead stumps alive.
- According to research, the mycelial network “has a primitive intelligence with decision-making ability and memory” – and scientists are working to understand how and why they forage, share resources and relocate when necessary.
- The world’s largest organism is a honey mushroom network in Oregon's Blue Mountains. These mushrooms would stretch to almost four square miles if laid flat – and they cover more than 2,300 acres. How can so many mushrooms all be part of the same organism? You guessed it: the mycelial network.
- This is only the beginning. What we know about fungi and the mycelial network is a small part of their infinite wisdom. As we’ve learned from our partners at the Fungi Foundation, fungi will save us – and we can all learn from them.
The next time you’re out on a hike or even taking a walk in your neighborhood, pause and look down. While you might not be able to see what’s happening, the mycelial network is always underneath. Whether you’re foraging for mushrooms or rewatching the film, let those feelings of awe and wonder inspire you to slow down enough to be present and get curious.