In many cultures, mushrooms have long held a stigma of mystery and danger. They’re what the Roman philosopher Seneca described as “voluptuous poison.” But very few mushrooms are actually poisonous- so how did they acquire such a dubious reputation? I’m Jim Metzner, and this is the Pulse of the Planet, presented by the American Museum of Natural History.
George Hudler is a professor of Plant Pathology at Cornell University.
“Mushrooms were something that came up over night. You know, one day they were not there and the next day they were. And that in and of itself, seemed to be a little bit alarming to people and perhaps the work of some evil force. But I think more importantly is that, on any kind of lawn or other open area, it’s pretty darn obvious that mushrooms often come up in circles.”
Nowadays, scientists know that the reason mushrooms often appear in circles is because they grow in colonies, which spread outward from a single, underground fungus. But in previous times, there was a more supernatural explanation, and these circular patches of mushrooms became known as ‘fairy rings.’ It’s a label that persists to this day.
“In days of old this was considered to be, perhaps, a symbol of paganism and associated with some evil.”
But viewed from an ecological perspective, it would seem that the humble mushroom deserves something of a promotion.
“The trees and shrubs and flowers and other things get all the press for making this great growth, beautifying the earth and and everything, but you need to keep in mind that sooner or later, somebody has to come along and clean up the mess, take everything apart so it can be used by the next generation. And that’s where the humble fungi come in. They’re the unsung heroes of our world.”
Additional funding for Pulse of the Planet has been provided by the National Science Foundation.