With care bordering on affection, mycologist Paul Stamets hoists up an enormous conk of agarikon to better show it off.
The large, gnarled, woody-looking layered mushroom, more specifically the polypore Fomitopsis officinalis, is about the size of a toddler’s torso.
Its dull outward appearance belies the invaluable medical properties agarikon — and a host of other fungi — might possess, said Stamets, who has been on the hunt for the endangered mushroom for decades.
Used for millennia as traditional medicine to treat respiratory illness, Stamets believes the fungus has antibacterial and antiviral properties, which are potentially more beneficial now than ever during this pandemic age.
“This rare, old-growth mushroom has a multi-thousand-year history of use in Europe,” Stamets said while doing research on Cortes Island, B.C.
“In fact, the Greek physician Dioscorides described agarikon as ‘elixirium ad longam vitam,’ or the elixir of long life,” Stamets said, adding it was used to treat consumption, later determined to be tuberculosis. Indigenous cultures of the Pacific Northwest also report its use, he said.
“Our ancestors weren't stupid,” Stamets said.
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“Through trial and error over thousands of years, surveying the forest for fungi, they came upon several species that were extraordinary with many potential benefits.”
A big deal in the mycology world, Stamets is a kind of mushroom messiah preaching the word on mycelium to the masses. And it appears he’s making headway.
Not only has he authored several books, but one of his TED Talks, titled, Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World, has more than six million views.
More recently, he participated in Fantastic Fungi, a documentary featuring beautiful imagery and a retinue of professional and amateur mycologists.
In the film, they argue that mushrooms — and their larger underground network of fungal filaments, mycelium — are the potential answer to a host of issues, including disease, depression and climate change.
Stamets has participated in a dizzying range of research projects exploring fungi properties and their effects on certain strains of tuberculosis, pox viruses and as a potential means to filter toxins or pollutants from the environment.
He is particularly excited about findings that suggest fungal extracts can help protect bees from some viruses that contribute to colony collapse.
But only a fraction of the millions of existing fungi have been identified or had their potential medical applications explored, Stamets said.
So, maintaining that reservoir of biodiversity is critical to unlocking their known and unknown potential, he adds.
Stamets sees B.C.’s old-growth forests as an invaluable resource in terms of their fungal genome, particularly when it comes to agarikon.
The long-lived mushroom — which can survive up to 75 years but is endangered in Europe and rare in the Pacific Northwest — is typically found sprouting from trees aged 150 years or older, Stamets said.
“When we cut down the old-growth forests, we are potentially losing genomic libraries that could have a strain of fungi that could have enormous implications for human biosecurity, and moreover, habitat health,” Stamets said.
“Which is to say, saving old-growth forests can be seen as a matter of international defence against pandemics,” Stamets said.
“And I think those words resonate with a deeper truth, even more so today.”
So Stamets is trying to culture and preserve as many strains of agarikon possible in hopes of finding a potential super strain.
He has around 80 strains banked so far and hopes to discover more, particularly on Cortes Island, which he describes as a haven for the ancient fungus.
“I just sort of jokingly suggest that Cortes Island be renamed Agarikon Island,” Stamets said.
“But, there's more agarikon on this island than I've seen in any habitat, anywhere I've been.”
He even hopes to establish a research unit on the island.
“I consider Cortes Island as an ideal field station,” he said. “What I plan to do is to create a subsidiary that will employ people … in these efforts to save the forest and its mycodiversity.”
Stamets stresses he never picks agarikon mushrooms when he finds them. They are too valuable alive. He simply takes a small sample to culture them for further testing.
He is currently working to establish clinical studies using the fungus to treat COVID-19 patients in the United States.
And he’d love to see similar studies established in Canada.
However, he concedes, it can be difficult to get scientists or physicians to take up research projects.
“It's weird science,” Stamets said, adding that exploring the medical potential of fungi is an emerging field.
“I mean, when someone first hears this, I can understand why it sounds a little bit out there. I don't blame them for that.”
But saving old-growth forests is a potential investment that could go well beyond the value of producing two-by-fours, he said.
“I think that British Columbia could go down in medical history as being a reservoir for having fungi in the old-growth forests that could prevent pandemics — now and in the future,” Stamets said.
“But that’s a hard story to tell.”
Rochelle Baker / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada's National Observer
HHHHHhhhhhmmmmm....oooookkaaaaaaayyyyyy...the “Quinine Conk” is kinda rare...I guess.
It’s definitely around, though.
I surveyed tree-root fungal diseases on the West Coast for many years, almost all in second-growth Douglas fir stands. Since F. officinalis usually infects the tree through a broken top, it’s not something I saw that much of in second-growth (which doesn’t feature a lot of dead tops—except maybe in root-rot kills). But I saw plenty of it when I was a timber cruiser, which I did mostly in old-growth.
When I was concerned with the timber industry, I put tree fungi in three broad categories in terms of damage: those which infect trees through root-contact and decay from the bottom up, those which infect trees mid-bole, through a broken branch stub, say, and decay both upwards and downwards from the germination point, and those like F. officinalis which most often germinates in the exposed wood of a broken treetop and decays, thence, downwards into the bole. .
If a large F. officinalis conk is spied at the top of an old-growth tree, the timber is assigned (from statistical studies) a significant amount of decay which deducts merchantable wood-volume from the gross dimension of the tree. Stumpage fees collected by timberland owners (in BC, usually the Crown) are calculated based on the difference between the estimated market-value of net ‘merch’ timber on a given area and development- (Crown-standardized road-building and logging) costs, taking the value of the roads built on Crown land (which thence become Crown property ) and the value of Crown timber accessed coincidentally by the road. The timber cruise takes enough samples to arrive at the allowable statistical confidence level, hence signs of defects (which deduct volume from the gross estimate) in just a few sampled tree is statistically distributed across the whole proposed cutting-permit area. Wood decay from F. officinalis can be substantial, so a Single tallied F. officinalis conk makes a big deduction from the volume estimate for whole subject stand because the conk usually doesn’t appear until late in the fungus’ life-cycle, after it has substantially decayed the tree. Thus, missing even one conk in the cruise is a major boo-boo.
Good thing they’re white and easy to see up there in the daylight. In contrast, the conks of many fungal species which infect trees mid-bole, down in the shaded under-storey, are dark-brownish and much harder to see, but just as important to the accuracy of the net-volume estimate. Fungal root pathogens are, naturally, much harder (usually impossible) to see directly, as well as the volume of timber decay that might have advanced into the bole from the roots (detection depends mostly on visible symptoms of infection, not direct signs like conks).
We were always told that F. officinalis has medicinal properties—hence the name, “Quinine Conk”?—but my principal tasks were usually concerned with timber-volume and identification and location of timber-damaging fungal diseases (that is, their potential to spread and/or re-infect regenerated stands). Since F officinalis usually produces a conk at the top of the host tree (where it probably germinated), its spores have a greater potential to spread over a large area than conks which sporulate below the canopy— its success depending on the number of broken tops (exposed wood to germinate and feed on) within it vicinity (again, which is a typical feature of OG, not second-growth stands).
It has become an urban myth during these days of protest against logging old-growth Coastal rainforest that climate change is significantly remediated by old-growth preservation when, in fact, it is not (apparently OG preservation propagandists have tried to lend OG logging some of climate-change’s criticality in a rhetorical fashion that skates perilously close to being unethical). However, there ARE good reasons to preserve OG—CO2 sequestration and climate-change remediation are simply NOT good reasons (indeed, there’s plenty of OG which is actually a net emitter of CO2 due to the facts that old stands have reached their trees’ CO2 absorption capacity and typically contain fungal decay which releases CO2 into the atmosphere).
Carbon sequestration isn’t a good reason to preserve old-growth forests, but there are plenty of other reasons which are—like affording studies of potentially or known, useful medicines and, of course, a sustainable source of them.
PS: it should be noted that OG forests are somewhat neutral in carbon sequestration terms, but they are actually threatened by climate change, not a bulwark against it: as rainforest biogeoclimatic zones warm up and dry out, the ecosystems which sustain rainforests are becoming maladapted to the new, changed environment—and that, naturally, includes the biggest components, trees and mycelial networks of fungi (like a germinated seed of Populus tremuloides, or trembling aspen, might eventually cover hundreds of acres with aspen forest made of this one individual’s root-suckers, or coppices, Armillaria mellea, or the edible “Honey Mushroom” commonly seen in dead and dying alder stands and adjacent conifers, can grow a contiguous mycelial network thousands of acres in area from a single germinated spore— which, for this reason, it has been dubbed, “Fungus Humongous”).
Preservation of OG therefore involves more than simply stopping its logging. Already, rainforest—at least properly-called hitherto—on the West Coast of Vancouver Island has suffered summer water-deficits this kind of forest ecosystem hasn’t experienced before; forest fires in stands with such big timber and heavy woody debris on the ground are very hard to extinguish, especially in the region’s difficult-to-access, mountainous terrain; a rare occurrence not so long ago, forest fires in Coastal OG are becoming more frequent, a trend which will likely continue for the foreseeable.
Policies must therefore be developed by asking, first, how much money should be devoted to protecting OG stands in the changing climate and, second, in which stands would preservation most likely succeed. Militant OG preservationists’ demand —‘stop ALL OG logging NOW’— bucks reality by its absolutism for a number of reasons like jobs, the economy, &c, but perhaps the biggest omission their idealism makes is the fact that many OG stands are (probably fatally) jeopardized by climate-change which our society cannot feasibly mitigate. The real urgency, then, is to identify the most-feasibly protectable OG stands right away so’s to suspend logging there and, possibly reallocate contractual obligations to OG stands which are most threatened with fire and insect attack due to changing climate and resulting maladaptation.
The reality —perhaps too real for the kind of idealism and identity politics today’s protest movements avail—is that, even if CO2 (and other GHG) emissions were capped tomorrow, it would take generations for the climate to stop changing at a rate that outpaces ecological adaptation. Aside form the fact that capping emissions is still a ways off (with plenty of foot-dragging by profiteers and inconvenient contingencies like the war in Ukraine), we still can’t foresee if, let alone when, sustainable ecosystems can be restored. That means the time to start preserving remaining OG, for all the good reasons to do so, needs to start now by identifying the best preservation candidates, suspend plans to log them (including renegotiation and compensation for contracts already in effect), and develop ways to protect them as well as possible (it may well turn out infeasible—or even impossible— to preserve former naturalness with complete authenticity).
I, for one, would support OG-logging protesters if they were to focus their attention on these kinds of actions and locations.