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TELEVISION: Documentary uncovers mushrooms' mysteries

by Erin Blakemore, The Washington Post | August 16, 2021 at 1:49 a.m.

Mushrooms look bizarre, almost magical.

But what occurs out of sight is even more enchanting.

Colorful shrooms are kind of like flowers — they produce spores that help fungi reproduce. But much of the fungal action takes place underground, where they link plants in a vast network that has been compared to the internet.

"Fantastic Fungi," an award-winning documentary on Netflix, sheds light on the fantastic workings of these strange organisms.

Life on Earth would be much different without members of the fungal kingdom, which can do everything from breaking down waste to providing food and blighting crops. By forming symbiotic relationships with other organisms, fungi thrive while sharing nutrients and other substances with their host.

Beneath the ground, fungi have a surprising social life. They interact with tree roots and other organisms in what has been called the "Wood Wide Web," an interconnected global network that helps plants "communicate." Plants can share nutrients, water and other substances through the fungal networks that connect them.

The film, directed by Louie Schwartzberg and narrated by Brie Larson, dives into this unusual and still mysterious world. It also follows mycologist Paul Stamets, known for his rousing speeches on fungi and his contributions to scientific research on psilocybin, a chemical compound produced by a few hundred species of fungi.

When ingested, psilocybin has psychedelic side effects, and it's being used with patients experiencing treatment-resistant depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other ailments.

"Fantastic Fungi" spends plenty of time on the potential of seemingly magic mushrooms, and can wax a bit too aggressively about fungi's future. But overall, the film is less about psychedelia or natural medicine than it is about connections — of fungi, organisms, humans, planet.

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