LITTLE ROCK — One University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture employee is broadening the public’s understanding of a modest, but essential element of the ecosystem.

“The public should understand that they are part of the natural world. Without fungi such as these, plantings will fail and the world will not have crops and forests,” he said. “Mushrooms are an important link in the health of field and forest.

Fungi form relationships with different parts of the ecosystem, which make could be harmful or beneficial.

“As parasites, they can cause destruction to crops and forests. These natural disease-causing agents accelerate succession allowing later successional species to colonize sites,” said Victor Ford, interim associate director of agriculture and natural resources for the Cooperative Extension Service, part of the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.

“As saprophytes, they decay plant material and recycle nutrients,” he said. “This process allows for plant nutrients to be reabsorbed by living plants. This creates humus and increases the fertility of the soil.

“Mycorrhizal fungi form mycorrhizae which are composed of a root of a plant and the hyphae, a the filamentous, threadlike, vegetative structure, of the fungus,” Ford said. “This relationship benefits the plant by more efficiently up taking water and nutrients. The fungi also have antifungal properties that can prevent plant disease. The fungus receives carbohydrates and vitamins from the plant.”

Ford became intrigued by mushrooms at a young age.

“I collected morels as a child in east Tennessee in the woods behind my parents’ house,” he said. “I have always been interested in learning how to identify things in nature.”

His passion thrived in college when he started working in a college laboratory.

“When I started my graduate work on mycorrhizae, I started taking classes on fungal taxonomy and ecology. I had to the pleasure and privilege to work in the laboratory of the late Dr. Orson K. Miller, Jr. while I was at Virginia Tech,” he said. ‘”Dr. Miller wrote the book, ‘Mushrooms of North America.’ He was one of the giants in the taxonomy of mushrooms. I took to this discipline very well and especially loved the microscopy work.”

Ford is actively educating the public about the importance of mushrooms.

“I give presentations to Master Gardeners and others interested in fungi in the garden. I give talks on the mushroom on logs demonstration on field tours and meetings,” he said. “I do a booth every year at the Arkansas Flower and Garden Show on mushrooms.”

Studying these fungi can be fascinating, especially if one enjoys scouting forest floors for different types of mushrooms.

“I enjoy the process of identification and placing the fungi in proper context with their environment,” said Ford. “I also enjoy finding things in the woods that are edible that you cannot buy.”

Ford said that there are plenty of resources available for anyone interested in mushrooms.

“I recommend that if people are interested in mushroom identification, they join the Arkansas Mycological Society and go on one of their forays,” he said.

Ford is working on many projects in the near future.

“I would like to look at culturing lions mane, hen-of-the-woods, and different varieties of oyster mushroom on logs. We need to test more strains of shiitake for the Arkansas climate,” he said.

These mushrooms are special their “Both lions mane and hen-of-the woods are easily grown and delicious,” said Ford. “Lions mane tastes similar to lobster. Both are desired by gourmet restaurants.”

Shiitake, a native mushroom, is being introduced to foreign climates for testing purposes.

“Shiitake is native to cooler climates than Arkansas. In the 1980s, we found that there are some shiitake strains that do well in our climate and those that do not,” said Ford. “Shiitake is not native to North America. As new strains are introduced, they need to be evaluated for our climate.”

For more information about the North American Mycological Association and mushrooms visit: http://www.namyco.org/