The Emerald Ash Borer, or EAB, is a destructive little insect that Michiganders are all too familiar with. It is an invasive species, native to China, which was first found in Michigan in 2002. It has since spread to surrounding states and Canada and has been responsible for the death of tens of millions of Ash trees.
Our area of North Eastern Lower Michigan has been particularly hard hit. We have personally lost several dozen trees on our property, and in our immediate surrounding area a person can see acres upon acres of dead Ash, bark peeling and branches falling. It is a very noticeable tragedy to even just the passing observer. Particularly because Ash has a tendency to grow in large groups, with few other species mixed in, it makes for a stark sight: a few hundred grand old Ash trees, several years dead and falling onto each other.
The EAB phenomena follows a classic pattern of invasive species: a species is introduced to an area where it has no natural predators, the numbers swell as the species thrives, pressure on the invaders food source increases dramatically, sometimes leading to the extinction of the source. It is a tragedy, without question, and the best thing a person can do about a tragedy is try to understand it, in hopes of avoiding more of them in the future.
Who is to blame for the introduction of the Emerald Ash Borer? The Chinese? Proponents of world trade? The insects themselves? Certainly not the former; I can’t imagine the Chinese appreciate this bug anymore than we do, although it should be noted it does not cause anywhere near the same amount of destruction in its native home, owing to natural predators that exist there. And it would be silly to blame the bugs themselves, since they didn’t make the trek across the ocean and half a continent on the strength of their own wings.
I don’t expect we will ever find a person or group of people to point the finger at, but we can certainly identify an idea that has historically led to these sorts of problems, and could be accused of lying near the root of this situation. I am referring to the idea that it is somehow preferable to manufacture goods tens of thousands of miles away from where they are to be sold, boxing them up in crates(sometimes made of Ash wood), and shipping them at great expense halfway around the world.
I will throttle myself here, before I sound like an isolationist or Luddite. These are complicate issues, and to simplify them in a polarized way doesn’t serve much good purpose. This is the world we live in, and this is an issue that was born from it. I feel like the best thing a person can do is try to thrive in whatever circumstance they find themselves, and we can take some notes from the Turkey Tail mushroom(Trametes versicolor), which has done exactly that in the wake of the Ash Borer situation.
It took several years for the EAB to really make its presence known, but it seemed like we woke up one morning and every mature Ash tree on our property was dead. This was at a time when we were primarily involved in mushroom cultivation, and our first thought was if we could somehow use the trees for mushroom log culture. Ash is a fairly idea tree for this purpose, they have dense wood with thick bark, that can support several years of fruiting.
Unfortunately it wasn’t to be: for ideal mushroom logs a person wants freshly cut branch wood, ideally taken in the spring when the sap is running. It was difficult to say how long ago the trees actually died, and if you don’t get your own mushroom culture planted into a log in the immediate term after its death, some other wild fungus will move in and make it impossible to compete.
Ash also makes fine lumber for building, and it is even better for making tools, such as axe handles or scythes. The grain of an ash tree is arranged in a way that gives it a ‘spring’ effect, able to absorb hard blows without cracking. It was also the preferred type of material used for basket making by the indigenous people in our area; who would split the wood into thin strips and weave them like reeds. As recently as my childhood we still had families carrying on this tradition.
As much as we wanted to put it to some ‘higher’ use, I am in a way ashamed to admit we just dropped them all and cut them up for firewood. The market for Ash lumber fell apart for the glut of supply, and we were so wrapped up in the constant labor involved with a mushroom farm we just didn’t have time for more creative uses. Those trees did keep us warm for nearly two entire winters though, and of course the ashes went in the raspberry patch which thrives like a jungle to this day.
I digress though, wasn’t this article about Turkey Tail mushrooms? Indeed I think the thoughtful reader can predict where I am heading with this. As I mentioned about the ideal mushroom logs, needing to be free of competing species of fungi; to a large degree they were already occupied, under the bark at least, by a very special mushroom indeed: the Turkey Tail.
It has only become evident more recently, but as a person walks through a stand of dead Ash they notice a habitat in transition. Many of the trees still stand, but the leaves have been gone for several years allowing more sunlight and rain to touch the ground and encourage different types of plants to grow. Different varieties of grasses seem to be the most common, but there are also other unique types of flora, and most importantly(to me anyway), you can see great blooms of Turkey Tail mushrooms covering the fallen branches, and even climbing up trunks of the standing trees.
The Turkey Tail is an extremely common mushroom, with worldwide distribution, and it can be found on many different types of dead wood. Its color palate can range widely, from brown and tan earth tones, to brighter blues and purples; this trait is where the Latin name is derived: versicolor(having different colors).
They play an important role as a recycler and I have always admired them for their ability to share a log with other species of fungi. It is not uncommon to see Turkey Tails growing on the same tree with 4 or 5 other types of mushroom. They are aggressive colonizers of dead wood, yet they also seem happy allowing other species to occupy the same space. This is also a great lesson from the kingdom of fungi: be fruitful, but don’t be greedy!
It is also said to be the most academically studied of all medicinal mushrooms, and its derivatives have been used in modern medicine for nearly 50 years. The specific extract is called PSK(polysaccharide K) or Krestin, and it was first used in Japan as a cancer treatment. Its common use in the US started more recently, but is on the rise and there are several studies currently ongoing.
I think it is safe to assume the Asians got the idea to use it in this way based on its older, even ancient, use as a medicinal tea. Drug companies have great difficulty with whole plant (or mushroom) treatments; both in patenting them and documenting their ‘mechanism of action’, required for government approval. A mushroom can have several thousand different unique chemicals composing them, and they all work together in a complex manner that is all but impossible to precisely document. The most common solution is to extract just a single, or small handful of its components, and conduct trials/pursue patents on those alone. Enter PSK.
I am venturing a bit beyond my area of expertise, to give a personal opinion, but to extract a single component of a plant(or mushroom) and toss out the rest seems shortsighted at best, and an act of hubris at worst: to believe we know better than nature. I’m not saying with any kind of authority that whole organisms are ‘better’ than extracts, but rather that is where my personal worldview leads me.
In any case the Turkey Tail is a notable mushroom for more reasons than just its value to humans. It is a ‘cosmopolitan’ mushroom, found all over the world, and I admire it for its ability to thrive on many different species of tree. It is similar to the Honey Mushroom (Armillaria sp) in that way, but I would note that it is not considered a parasite or forest pathogen, as the Honey Mushroom is.
As a part of my ‘Thriving in Decay’ series I am trying to illustrate what can be gleaned by observing different mushrooms in nature. The Turkey Tail is a shining example of an organism taking a bad situation(the Ash Borer) and turning it to its advantage. Of course there are other species of fungi that are chomping away at the dead Ash trees in Northern Michigan, but I point to the Turkey Tail for its beauty, usefulness to humans, and what I see as its embodiment of the virtue of thrift: making the best possible use of available resources.
So next time you find yourself on a wander, take a closer look at that stump or fallen branch. I hope you might run across the beautiful, brightly colored florets that belong to the Turkey Tail. And if you do, please take a moment to observe them and consider their role in nature, and admire their modest yet stunning display.
Stay tuned for the next installment: ‘Consider the Lobster Mushroom’, which will examine interspecies cooperation.