Fungi, the plural for fungus, exist in many forms. Scientifically, they belong to a large division of plant organisms called thallophyta. They are plantlike but lack the green pigment called chlorophyll. Fungi are void of true leaves, stems and roots, and they reproduce by spores. They include mushrooms, mildews, molds, yeast, rusts and smuts.
Because they lack chlorophyll, fungi are incapable of manufacturing their own food; thus, they are parasitic. They survive by feeding on and digesting the nutrient value from other living and non-living organisms.
Surely, such a description hints that fungi are dangerous, but not all are. While some fungi can and do pose a serious threat to humans and other living organisms, many have beneficial value. For example, a number of mushrooms are highly sought after as delectable delights; yet others are extremely poisonous if eaten.
Furthermore, most gardeners realize that mushrooms, mold and mildew play an important role in the decomposition process. They are the major contributors to rotting. If it were not for these fungi, organic matter would not decay, certainly a necessary process to rid the landscape of dead organisms. Decomposition breaks down dead organic matter into its basic elements, recycling valued nutrients back to the soil.
Other beneficial forms of fungi involve certain molds. Every schoolchild eventually learns that in 1928 a research scientist by the name of Sir Alexander Fleming discovered the antibacterial action of Penicillium notatum mold. His discovery later led to the development of medicines such as penicillin and other wonder drugs used to treat diseases inside the human body.
Did you know a bluish-colored mold called Penicillium roqueforti is what makes blue cheese blue and provides that distinctive flavor in blue cheese and Roquefort dressing? There is also a species of white mold called Penicillium candidum. This mold colors, ripens and favors Brie and a variety of other white cheeses.
Yeast, another fungus, makes it possible for the rising of bread and assists in the fermentation process that gives us beer and wine.
In spite of all the beneficial values, many fungi still pose serious dangers to plants as well as humans and animals. Those who have gardened for any length of time are acutely aware of the many maladies caused by fungi. Whether we refer to these fungal problems as molds, mildews, or blights, they are diseases. Such deadly fungi attack and destroy many of the valued plants we attempt to grow in our landscape. Turfgrass, trees, flowers and vegetables are all at risk.