Thailand’s forests are sadly dwindling. Many of the areas in the country have been denuded and degraded forest areas where restoration seems to be impossible. Although many sectors have tried to campaign for reforestation, it has not been easy. This is because reforestation takes a very long time and, most importantly, requires the cooperation of local villagers to continue the task of planting and maintaining the forests. The Faculty of Science and the Center of Learning Network for the Region (CLNR) Chulalongkorn University have tried to find ways to motivate villagers to become a coalition of growers and forest guards.
The answer to this problem lies in Ectomycorrhiza fungi.
“We asked villagers to plant a forest with Dipterocarpaceae trees that will not only grow into forests but also produce many kinds of ‘mushrooms’ around the base of the trees as by-products to help better the livelihoods of villagers and Thai farmers,” said Assistant Professor Dr. Noppadol Kitana, Director of CLNR, on the success of ecological restoration projects in forest areas in Nan and Saraburi provinces with a seedling innovation that has ectomycorrhiza.
The Beginning of Ectomycorrhizal Seedling Innovation in Forest Restoration
Nan is one of the northern provinces that used to have abundant forests. But in recent years, as a result of modern development, the forest area has been encroached on and denuded. More than 2,000 rai (3.2 square km) of Chula’s property in Wiang Sa district, Nan province used to be a deciduous forest as well.
Asst. Prof. Dr. Noppadol, CLNR reveals that the concept of forest restoration started in 2008 with a local science project to study applied environmental solutions. At that time, Assistant Professor Dr. Jittra Piapukiew, Department of Botany, Faculty of Science, Chula came to research and experiment with seedlings containing “ectomycorrhiza” to restore forests in Nan Province.
“We started with the culture of ectomycorrhiza in the laboratory and then propagated them to Dipterocarpaceae seedlings in the nursery. After 4-5 years of growing Dipterocarpaceae trees, mushrooms appeared on the base of the trees. Later in 2011, we expanded the research project to Chula’s property in Saraburi province, where there are degraded forests as well,” said Asst. Prof. Dr. Noppadol.
Mycorrhiza and trees – an inseparable relationship in ecosystems
Asst. Prof. Dr. Jittra, an expert and researcher on ectomycorrhiza for more than 20 years, describes the uniqueness of “Mycorrhiza” fungi that the name is derived from the word “mycor” meaning “fungus” and “rhiza” meaning “root”. Mycorrhiza, therefore, refers to the symbiotic relationship between fungi and plant roots. Mycorrhiza fungi find water and minerals, deliver them to plants, while plants photosynthesize them, and then create food, sending them down to the roots where fungal fibers abound.
Apart from feeding the plants, fungi also keep plants healthy by preventing diseases from microorganisms. And it has been found that plants with mycorrhiza grow well, are drought and acidity resistant, resulting in a high rate of survival. According to current research, it is known that mycorrhiza plays a very important role in forest ecosystems because the underground mycorrhiza fibers that spread throughout the forest are a network through which trees in the forest communicate with each other about food and various chemicals used for growth and survival. This is also known as the “Wood Wide Web” which allows us to learn that the forest ecosystems communicate through these mycorrhiza fiber networks.
Mycorrhizae can be divided into two types: ectomycorrhiza, a fungus that grows around the plant root and the plant root cells, and endomycorrhiza, which is a fungus that grows in plant cells.
“Ectomycorrhiza is essential to the ecosystem as they cohabitate with the roots of forest trees such as Dipterocarpaceae genus, such as resin trees (Yang Na/Dipterocarpus alatus), Yang Daeng (Garjan/Dipterocarpus alatus), Hiang (Dipterocarpus obtusifolius), Ta-khian (Hopea odorata), Pluang (Dipterovarpus tuberculstus Roxb.), Payom (Shorea roxburghii), Teng (Siamese Sal/Shorea obtusa), Rang (Shorea siamensis), etc. Fagaceae trees, Pinaceae trees, and Eucalyptus (Myrtaceae) trees. Moreover, these fungi create mushrooms, which are the sexual reproductive structure from the right moisture and temperature as their flowers, creating spores to propagate and perpetuate in the circle of life,” explained Asst. Prof. Dr. Jittra.
Plant trees for mushrooms – a Strategy for Sustainable Forest Restoration
Asst. Prof. Dr. Jittra explains that after 4 years of planting Dipterocarpaceae plant seedlings with ectomycorrhiza there will be mushrooms around the trees. At first, there will be mostly the sickeners mushrooms (Russula emetica), and in the following years, when the trees become larger, the number of mushroom will decrease, but there will be more variety on a seasonal basis. For example, barometer earthstar mushrooms (Astraeus hygrometricus) will be found in late summer, early rainy season, or around May. In the rainy season, the most common mycorrhiza mushrooms are various types of Amanita vaginata mushrooms, the sickeners, toadstool, bolete, chanterelle, etc., The moisture content in the soil determines the type and variety of mushrooms. In addition, when the forest is more fertile, other mushrooms that are not mycorrhiza are formed, such as Termitomyces, Lentinus polychrous, and Lentinus squarrosulus, etc.
“Barometer earthstar, Amanita vaginata, Russula emetica, etc. are mycorrhiza that are expensive because they cannot be grown, but only develop around tree roots in the forest. These mushrooms grow in deciduous forests with Dipterocarpaceae trees, so if you want mushrooms, you have to plant these trees,” said Asst. Prof. Dr. Jittra.
In addition to the northern region, Asst. Prof. Dr. Jittra said that the reforestation methods in this project can be applied to reforestation in many areas throughout Thailand.
For Asst. Prof. Dr. Jittra, Dipterocarpaceae is a “magical tree” that not only generates additional income for villagers but is also one of those trees that helps to cope with climate change as well.
Forest – Mushroom – Human in a symbiotic relationship
The villagers’ lives are already tied to the forest, and mushrooms are part of the community’s lifestyle. The villagers know mushrooms, the characteristics of edible mushrooms, the seasons for collecting mushrooms, where to find mushrooms, etc. It is not difficult to connect the knowledge of the villagers with forest conservation. Asst. Prof. Dr. Noppadol said that CLNR has held workshops for the villagers on this topic on how to plant trees and then get mushrooms in 4 years. Moreover, the center also cultivates Dipterocarpaceae seedlings which are home to mycorrhiza mushrooms, and many villagers have obtained them to plant.
“We want the villagers to be able to live in harmony with nature. When they understand the relationship between fungi and trees, they will help to grow and preserve forests and benefit from the forest. Mushrooms can also be eaten and sold for a living,” concluded Asst. Prof. Dr. Noppadol.
Agencies and interested parties can contact us for free seedlings containing Ectomycorrhiza! at the Center of Learning Network for the Region (CLNR), Khaeng Khoi District, Saraburi Province, and Muang Nan District, Nan Province, or visit the CLNR website http://www.clnr.chula.ac.th/index.php.
By Chulalongkorn University