I have always been fascinated by fungi. Thanks to my legendary first grade teacher, “Miss Mozelle” at Mozelle Johnston Elementary School in Longview, one of the first things I learned to paint with oils was a red and white spotted amanita mushroom. I suppose she was the first to teach me that even the detritus beneath our feet could give rise to art.

After the January cold and rain ended last month, I found myself on my usual forest bathing weekend woodland walk. One thing that I enjoy doing, even at night with a flashlight, is hunting for terrestrial orchids. By this time of the year, I have already spotted most of the puckered, purple-backed cranefly orchid foliage. Their tiny flowers will not emerge until the heat of summer (after the foliage has withered away) when I am rarely walking in the woods. The other diminutive orchid that I enjoy hunting only produces two small leaves during early spring followed by even tinier flowers. One must have keen eyesight to spot foliage the size of English peas amongst the dead foliage and branches.

After the snow and ice storms of 2021, coupled with two severe droughts in a row, my forest floor is littered with limbs and logs. I try not to get too excited about it knowing that they will all decay into rich organic matter which sustains and perpetuates the forest. In fact, the dust-like seed of cranefly orchids only germinates on rotting wood. One year I got to witness that happen.

While staring at the ground on my recent walk looking for orchid foliage and trying to make sure I did not tangle and trip over numerous limbs and logs, I could not help but notice the beauty of the saprophytic fungi in action. Thank you, Miss Mozelle.

In nature’s unsung cleanup crew, saprophytic fungi play a crucial role. They are like the recycling team, breaking down dead plant debris and turning it into nutrients for new growth, all the while looking artistic while they do it.

Saprophytic fungi quietly break down dead stuff in the forest. Fallen leaves and decaying wood become their workspace. They are like the garbage collectors, turning old plant leftovers into the building blocks for new life. To me their equivalent would be buzzards dressed as painted buntings.

These fungi come in a range of hues, turning the forest floor into a lively canvas. From white threads in the soil to colorful oranges, greens, grays, creams, and browns on the surface, each species brings its unique colors, making the forest look vibrant.

The fungal world is a hotspot for biodiversity. Saprophytic fungi create small habitats in decaying stuff, providing homes for many tiny creatures. In what seems like a lifeless place, there is a bustling community of insects and microscopic organisms. Would you believe that fireflies (“lightning bugs”) are dependent upon decaying organic matter for part of their life cycle? That is one of the major reasons there is such of dearth of them these days. Everything is too neat and clean.

In the big picture, saprophytic fungi are nature’s recyclers. They prevent dead stuff from piling up, making sure the cycle of life keeps going. Old leaves and logs become the fuel for new life, thanks to these fungi. They are no-work compost piles producing free organic matter 24/7, 365 days a year. On top of that, they have been doing their job for millions of years.

Watching the balance between decay and renewal led by saprophytic fungi is like witnessing the heartbeat of nature. It is a simple yet profound story of change and new beginnings. These fungi make sure every end is just the start of something new. It is the story of life for fungi, plants, and people. In the natural world, death truly is the key to life.

Saprophytic fungi are like nature’s cleanup crew, quietly working to keep things in order. They add both function and a bit of flair to the forest. Understanding them is like peeking into the backstage of Earth’s ecosystems—a place where the show goes on, guided by an exponential multitude of often unseen workers going about their essential duties with truly little appreciation from above.

Folks, everybody on this planet must learn, appreciate, and take advantage of millennial old natural systems. We have done an excellent job of screwing most of them up. We gardeners need to do a much better job of being Earth-Kind, environmentally responsible, and yes sustainable. If you are Master Gardener or a Master Naturalist, it is your job to teach others. If you are not, it is your job to listen, learn, live, and let die.