Monday, July 15, 2024

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HomeIssue 7A touch of light: fungi, fear or wonder?

A touch of light: fungi, fear or wonder?


Photos© Mike Gillam 

When I encountered her in the street my old friend seemed agitated. “Did you smell the trees burning last night?” she asked. “The smoke woke me up. I found the place this morning, another one of our sacred trees lost, burnt out, a fire lit by someone with no respect.”

Back then, it was an all too common story – buffel grass fires that quickly engulfed ancient river red gums. Anarchy, poor fire management and tragic losses. 

On another occasion a magnificent coolibah was set alight and destroyed on the river corner of Gosse Street. Within a few days the local authorities swung into tidy town action until Arrernte custodians called a halt, insisting that the site be protected. (If only the car wrecks that frequently litter the streets for weeks on end before they’re finally torched, could be whisked away with equal civic dedication and haste!).

Fortunately for the natural environment of our town, Arrernte people routinely demonstrate a deeper understanding of ecology than government officials. They correctly reasoned that the tree might recover and the pile of limbs on the ground – well they represented habitat for the denizens of the river and might aid the tree’s recovery.

Once chainsaws have left their mark on a fallen tree in a public place, the weekend warriors feel justified in helping themselves to free timber so sensibly AAPA (Aboriginal Areas Protection Authority) had a fence erected to send a different message. Predictably this very small fence led to community conjecture and infantile ridicule but ultimately did its job.

Some six months later I stopped for a closer look and noticed vigorous regrowth at the base of the coolibah. Cautiously I hopped over the fence to remove some buffel grass seedlings while taking care not to step on a variety of native herbs and grasses that had colonized the small untrammeled area. Then I noticed the spectacular fungi.

There had been some autumn rain and three prominent species had colonized the fallen limbs across the site. The leaf litter was quite thick in places and I felt certain a hidden mycelium layering, many square metres of delicate lace, would also be present, transporting nutrients back and forth, assisting the tree’s recovery.

Wikipedia describes mycelium as “the vegetative part of a fungus or fungus-like bacterial colony, consisting of a mass of branching, thread-like hyphae…”

In the Netherlands a new building called the Growing Pavilion demonstrates the potential of mycelium in construction with ‘cladding’ that is cleaning the air as it grows. Rapidly growing mycelium is also being used to create building panels with shock absorbing, insulating and fire retardant qualities that capture twice their own weight in carbon dioxide during growth/manufacture. Compare this to cement which is responsible for producing 8% of the world’s CO2 emissions. 

Back to the coolibah: large bright orange fungi well known to most of us fringed the base of the massive trunk. This is a hardy species that I’ve photographed many times, typically decorating dead corkwoods and even gaining purchase on an ageing sheet of plywood protruding from my shed roof. Dozens of pale toffee coloured fungi clung to the underside of a log, like a community of mussels attached to the pylons of a wharf and lastly, emerging from a hollow of rotting wood, was this beauty, the colour of sea foam.

I knew my Arrernte friends would be pleased with the good news about the coolibah but of course they had been watching the tree’s progress intently and smiled politely at my discovery.  

The world of fungi is fascinating albeit little known. I’ve photographed one species that grows exclusively upon the barren surface of termite mounds in the Tanami desert (I’ll feature this in a forthcoming article) and in some sand ridge environments there’s the mysterious truffles, known as jinta-parnta by the Warlpiri, who like most desert peoples are expert at finding this elusive gourmet food.

Aboriginal knowledge and use of fungi is extensive and far, far beyond the scope of this article. Peter Latz’s Bushfires & Bushtucker (IAD Press,1995) includes fascinating information about truffles, including the fact that water can be wrung from them, presumably following rain.

While truffles associated with oak trees are harvested commercially I’m not sure if the potential commercialisation of desert truffles is well understood. Latz claims they are in decline, possibly due to rabbits. I’ve never tried the desert truffle but a chef once confided that truffle sauce/oil was his secret weapon, highly expensive but it went a long way.

On several occasions following winter rain I photographed an exceptionally beautiful colony of tiny bright orange fungi, growing upright like a coral reef on a tree stump. They persisted for a couple of months, aided by my spraying them with rainwater and keeping the stump soaked in an attempt to establish what they might become. I hesitate to say they seemed to mature at less than 10 mm high!

For those of us living in Alice Springs, the appearance of fungi is usually a novelty and a point of interest in the bush or the garden. In contrast, for the inhabitants of the Northern Territory’s Top End, it’s yet another lurking horror, an organism that can transform that favourite leather jacket hanging in the darkened closet to a fur coat in a matter of weeks. Note: do not turn off the split system air-conditioning when you go on holidays to somewhere less hostile.

The bane of humanity across the nation with the exception of the arid and semi arid areas where sensible people luxuriate in dry heat, the mere mention of fungus will cause most photographers to shudder.

I recently contacted a Melbourne camera exchange to trade in some second hand equipment and secure a better telephoto lens. I was intending to fly to Melbourne on family business and the technician on the other end asked some standard questions, to save me from wasting my time.

“Have you checked the lenses for fungus? Where have they been used?”

“Alice Springs and I’m confident they’re perfectly clean”.

“No problem.”

“By the way, I could ask you the same. Melbourne – damp.”

In closing I should make the point that members of the fungi kingdom are closer to animals than plants so if you’re a diehard vegetarian, you might need to review your position on mushrooms.


Recently in this series:

A touch of light: the desert in between

For the complete series of “A touch of light” go to the Features button on the home page menu bar.


  1. Another fascinating and illuminating article, Mike.
    I find myself making mental notes as to when to expect your next story and, when they come later than expected, get as twitchy as a cocaine addict.
    But then, as Lou Reed put it in Waiting for the Man: “First thing you learn is that you always gotta wait.” Ha ha.

  2. Several young coolibah trees growing on the west (Todd River) side of the entrance road into Olive Pink Botanic Garden were germinated from seed collected from the burnt tree on the river corner of Gosse Street.
    These are the second cohort planted along the entrance road – the first ones were wiped out by grasshoppers.
    I established these trees, and on both times primed the planting sites with my termite-attracting method for soil preparation.
    On the first occasion the soil proved very hard – basically saline sub-soil clay – when I dug out deep holes that were backfilled with dry grass, old mulch and leaf litter.
    On the second occasion I dug out the same sites, and this time the soil scooped out like vanilla ice cream – it was delightfully easy to work with, and there was no sign of the organic material I had buried in that dirt the previous year.
    The termites had done their work, exactly as intended.
    Returning to the topic of fungi, there was a most interesting article published a week ago which reveals just how complex and overlooked is the biology and ecology of fungi around the world.
    Incidentally, fungi are neither plant or animal – they are their own separate kingdom of lifeforms.


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