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<Bob Wulkowicz>
Peter stated toward the end of the thread Mycorrhizal soil inoculation :

"Someone figured out that certain fungi are pathogens- they parasitize living plants.
Then someone figured out that certain fungi are saprophytes- they eat dead plant tissues.
Then someone figured out that certain fungi form beneficial symbiotic associations- like mycorrhizas and lichens.
Now we have three places to classify the fungi.
What about all the places in-between?
So are described, others are not. And then there are the extremes, and the edges."


Let me first assume that the range of complexity for ground-dwelling flora and fauna including mycorrhiza can be a definable sub-division of life something like, for example, birds. Using the delineation of size, I can go from finches and such to buzzards and eagles; and if I choose to add non-flight birds, I can expand the sizes to emus and perhaps the lumbering dodos. With equal justification, I can choose colors as the definitions, or brilliance of colours, or complexity of colours and then position the sparrow, the indigo bunting and the peacock as part of the selected fields and range.

As a thinker, I am allowed to sort and shuffle any various perspectives I may pick and then assign or infer whatever I would like from those categories I create. Often times we are comfortable with our categories, grant them the imprimatur of science and stuff them in textbooks for innocents to memorize as part of their education. Left unchallenged, those classifications become the order of the universe as sacred objects--until some quantum events occur like the suggestions that birds are descendants of dinosaurs. We then scramble to patch the cracks of such heresies--usually with more interest and energies for us in maintaining the status quo than any interest the species involved would have in the debate.

We've known about the presence of mycorrhiza for some time in the tiny arcane worlds of some scientists. And only recently have the beasties surfaced in the world of arboriculture. The fact that they can be "captured" and sold has accelerated our awareness and produced threads and discussions like the ones above about their usefulness. We have also created and continued the great semantic slur of "mycorrhiza" that is at the same time both nebulous and infinitely detailed.

All living things have some very common basic goals. One of the very primary ones is to stay alive--and they go though all sorts of activities to maintain that intent. Peter points out some earthy organisms are divided into pathogenic, saprophytic and symbiotic. I will agree that those divisions are clearly artificial and dissolve rather easily as we become capable of closer examination of each creature in its context of other creatures and circumstances. Our tiny creatures are only staying alive and sometimes their hosts and foods are very specific; understanding their relationships to each other and to macro-creatures is a staggeringly complex set of goals.

We choose trees as a pivot for mychorriza categories. If an organism appears "symbiotic" with trees, is it unarguably beneficial? If an organism is part of a two or three step process that ultimately benefits trees, when do we understand that sequence? If we don't ever perceive it, would that creature ever receive the label of beneficial?

It would still work and be valid, but we would be ignorant. Big deal. If nature operated by authorization though our awareness, the universe would have ground to a stop a very long time ago.


I submit that the subterranean world and its creatures is so complex that we better pack a few decades of lunch while we begin to sort it all out. I agree with the concepts of eventual usefulness to trees, but I rank our present efforts somewhere in the vicinity of sales of aluminum siding. There can be a value to the basic stuff, but we now slip back and forth between profit margins and snake oil without even noticing. Saying something is beneficial is a judgment in a perspective of excluded complexities that might undercut the simplicity of our pronouncements.

Complex things make our little brains hurt. I understand that very well each time I take a leap at a complex thought or situation. So, I recognize the desire for magic bullets and miracle diets. The old scruffy part of me however, grumbles at those delusions. I dearly love change and moving forward, but those movements have rarely been the result of my being comfortable.

If we care about trees and are professional, then we have to endure the discomfort on behalf of our clients. We are at the "gross awareness" stage with mycorrhiza. We will itch and scratch and argue, but perhaps trees will benefit as we understand it more betterer.

For me, right now; it's fen-phen. You know, the stuff that was going to make us all skinny, but later we found, ate holes in heart valves.

Study the reports with care. Question inconsistencies. Be skeptical on behalf of trees, but never give up the belief that it could make a difference. That may be the best we can do. Ever

Bob Wulkowicz
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<Peter Torres>
Reply to post by Bob Wulkowicz, on January 11, 1999 at 15:37:17:

Bob, As you mentioned, "If an organism appears "symbiotic" with trees, is it unarguably beneficial?"
When we get exotic trees, shrubs and other plants into a natural area, the spread is often explosive and detrimental. It occurs to me that a pepper tree (Schinus molle) for example, might be a good species in its native area, because certain pathenogenic fungi are there to control it, or: certain mycorrhizal symbionts are NOT there to encourage it. But if we have a symbiont that is new to the pepper tree, and beneficial in a given native soil, then the pepper tree surpasses native species. A new combination of genetic instructions to wring more out of the soil. If we send it back to the native habitat, maybe then the pepper tree would become a problem due to exotic mycorrhiza-style fungi.
You also wrote, "If an organism is part of a two or three step process that ultimately benefits trees, when do we understand that sequence?"
In fact, we don't generally think of brown rot decay fungi as friends, but in the Pacific Northwest forests, for example, most of the stable humus content of the soil is lignin, (I think the estimate is 60%), which was left there by brown rot fungi, including many pathogenic species (like Phaeolus schweinitzii). This is a major reason that it's one of the most productive forests on the world.
Then there is Phellinus weirii, causing laminated root rot in Douglas-fir, which brings down so many trees in expanding disease centers that some consider it the greatest disturbance agent in the Douglas-fir forests. It allows natural succession to occur by breaking up the shade of the Douglas-fir canopy, and so lalder (nitrogen-fixing) and hemlock come in and create diversity. Very healthy result.
As you point out, it is helpful to look at bigger pictures and ask larger questions. Not that it is easy to do in a client's yard when they are losing their trees!
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<Bob Wulkowicz>
Reply to post by Peter Torres, on January 11, 1999 at 15:37:17:

Thank you for your thoughtful reply.

Let me start with your last paragraph: "As you point out, it is helpful to look at bigger pictures and ask larger questions. Not that it is easy to do in a client's yard when they are losing their trees!"

You're right, somewhere in my extended prose, I agreed that those moments with a client were difficult. What I saw growing, however, and without much justification, was the tendency to reach for a can of mycorrhiza and say to a customer, "Well, here we have something to fix the trees."

With that in mind, I compared the issues to both the sale of aluminum siding and fen-phen, an obviously opinionated position, but one that has its roots in our obligations to our customers to give the best of care to their trees.

I used the aluminum siding comparison because that business gathered itself a really bad reputation that is still remembered. Certainly, they put on aluminum materials rather than paper-mache siding so there was an honesty to that, but they sold aggressively beyond the benefits to their customers. Profit margins were hidden and inflated, installations were hurried and shoddy, and salesmen pushed people into purchases they didn't need. The ratio of value to cost for customers was not very good.

The fen-phen comparison has a different twist in that customers often had deep convictions that they need the product. They pursued doctors and clinics into prescribing it as a simple no-work way to get skinny. Certainly, that goal had health benefits for them and we say the eruption of the fen-phen fad. It could have gone on for a long time, the success hysteria was swelling, and the market was boundless until a lowly lab technician was puzzled by a pattern of what he was seeing in his microscope.

He took these concerns to one of the doctors in the lab and they researched and gathered enough data to submit their concerns to governmental authorities. Once uncovered, the big engines of bureaucracies took over and we see the result:

Fen-phen, and the diet clinics using it and other drugs, had extremely good profit margins and there was a clear demand for it beyond the presence of aggressive salesmen. The problem was people were being injured and a number had died as directly traceable to the drugs. This was a clear damper on the fad and it properly joined a lot of other things in the magic bullet graveyard.

I hope I don't have to step too far to tie this to mycorrhyzae sales and use. The little creatures may be profoundly beneficial to trees. Then again, they may have definitely destructive qualities in ways that we've yet to see. Then again, again, they may make no difference.

The problem is we don't know. The complexity of the inter-relationships between soil flora and fauna with trees is so mind-boggling that I'd prefer to avoid the boggle just right now. Yes, Shigo and others have pointed out a world of probable usefulness and identified a few of the players. Having said that in honest respect of their efforts and discoveries, how do I relate that to the available cans and bottles and packages, with sprayers and augers and deep root injections with magical implications?

I'd certainly want it all to happen--I'd welcome the arrival of a magic bullet. But I'm not sure that what I see on the mycorrhyza landscape is the eternal glint off my new aluminum siding as I admire it in my newly-acquired skinniness.


I've written in recent posts about having information and reasonable proofs available to help us all in our decisions. And I'm the first guy in line to jump off the train and search out some delight of discovery, but I have a consequent obligation to proportionalize my new ideas and benefits.

Your response correctly emphasizes the effect and impact of fungi and other beasties on trees. It is significant, however it is equally shadowy right now. If a pediatrician were to want to treat your child with the same levels of information and assuredness, you'd be out the door in a minute looking for someone else.

Big pictures and questions are just as important as little details and inquiries. If we stop in a evolution of discovery because a part of it appears to have a value--and a commercial future--and then hawk that product or practice without looking further, maybe we're not so professional. Penicillin was a tad of mold on a piece of bread, but we don't have rye and wheat band-aids. We refined the discovery and it proved to be tremendously important. The discoveries of mycorrhyza have only begun their understanding and refinements.

Bob Wulkowicz
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<Peter Torres>
Reply to post by Bob Wulkowicz, on January 21, 1999 at 22:18:47:

Mycorriza-style symbionts in the rhizosphere are a good thing, it seems, as long as they are not in an exotic relationship. By this I mean when-
1. an exotic tree is not using a native root symbiont to take "unfair" advantage of the habitat and drive out native species
2. an exotic root symbiont does not give an "unfair" advantage to any tree species (native or exotic) to the detriment of native trees
3. exotic or manufactured soil does not provide the substrate that gives an "unfair" advantage to any exotic or native mycorrhizal system to the detriment of native species.
I believe Stephen Wiley posted similar thoughts last month. Steve? Are you there?
Sending around species of plants to exotic locations is a universal practice. So is soil manipulation, and now, so is the deliberate dissemination of non-native fungi. These practices are not usually a problem. Sometimes there might be a severe, negative cost.
I am not an isolationist. I do believe in preservation of native ecology.
I also believe that mycorrhizal fungi are desirable if the species of tree is shipped without any (in sterile soil).
And that mycorrhizal fungi are useless in compacted, or otherwise critically damaged soil, except in that they add a wee bit more raw humic material.
Someone help me with a non-teleological replacement for my use of "unfair". Please.
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<Bob W>
Reply to post by Peter Torres, on January 22, 1999 at 15:53:39:

The best replacement for the word "unfair" is probably no word at all.

Woven through your post is the creation of a kind of MicroMaginot line against soil beasties that apparently requires a passport or certification of their "nativeness."

First, I'm not persuaded that the presence or absence of mycorrhiza will mean significant changes in the populations of forests the way you might suggest. The familiar successions of forest types include many more factors for advancement or decline than just the presence of a particular subsoil organism. But then again, what do I know? Certainly, mycorrhiza can be important, but how do we know which one is--to what--and when?

That's also what I meant about the problems of identification in assessing further unavoidable complications, "If an organism is part of a two or three step process that ultimately benefits trees, when do we understand that sequence?" I can see one organism typically preparing the way for another as it were, and this is a pattern of sequences we see all through nature. We see it in the macro-system of forest successions ( and ) and it is probably easy to find similar parallels in the micro-systems.

I certainly could agree with your goals of intercepting disruptive changes that you might define as "unfair" if you provided the details, but just how would you plan to get those details? Successions are generally not instantaneous, many take place over millennia depending on what you choose to examine and at what scale. In what would I look to find the details that form the specifics of your "alien interferences"?

1. an exotic tree is not using a native root symbiont to take "unfair" advantage of the habitat and drive out native species

2. an exotic root symbiont does not give an "unfair" advantage to any tree species (native or exotic) to the detriment of native trees

3. exotic or manufactured soil does not provide the substrate that gives an "unfair" advantage to any exotic or native mycorrhizal system to the detriment of native species.

God bless us, one and all, for our drives to bring order and rationality to nature, but she seems not to care about our categories--or our opinions. We have only scratched the surface in understanding the relationships between the subject branch of soil flora and the higher order of trees. If we get judgmental too soon in this game of discovery, I suspect we'll dilute our energies a little like arguing about who's at fault for an auto accident on a highway yet to be built.

Most of nature's creatures seem to gain their various ascendencies by being better in some ways than the conditions can overcome. Then again, a meteor hits the earth once in a while and profoundly tilts the Gaia pinball machine, so life puts in another quarter. That is so powerful and resolute--and perennial an answer--that we should always stand in awe of it.

However, if I am to selectively sterilize soils to guard against "unfairness", I bump up against that same powerhouse of change, resilience and accommodation. Maybe I could clean up a truckfull of soil in few weeks with my micro-laser gun, but while I turned to do the next one, my first truckfull would be aswarm with new and modified beasties needing to be re-examined for their value.

That's a tough row to hoe as it were. While I might enjoy the argument, I'd prefer not to have the job.

Bob Wulkowicz

P.S. Given our often disappointing sense of ineffectiveness in helping trees with their problems, I submit showing up at a site with a few cans of "Uncle Charlie's Myccorhiza for Trees" is not going to make a difference for the same reasons above. Call it as inertia or momentum, mother nature in active soils is a big engine indeed. "Buy a can, save a tree." seems to be sales pitch of the day; just what is the ratio of "sales hype" to "knowledge of usefulness"? Am I over the edge on that?
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<Stephen Wiley>
Reply to post by Bob W, on January 22, 1999 at 23:11:39:

Peter, yes I am here. I've been busy to the point I have not had time to respond as I've wanted to until now!

"unfair" Webster's New World Dictionary, College Edition,; THE WORLD PUBLISHING COMPANY,; Copywright 1962 defines "fair" as: "[5]without obstacles;... [7]...impartial;...[8]...promising; advantageous...[14]apparently favourable". Thus "Un-" refers to possesing none of these attributes or qualities. Thus, Wiley paraphrase in applying the term "Unfair" is: the inequality of native recipients in benefiting from introduction of mass "indiscernable unknowns".

Soil assumptions that apply "Buy a can, save a tree" will be eminent in resulting in offsetting the balance of existing mychorrizae. (Even if the michorriza, are known to be similar species) Why? Unless, I close my eyes and understanding of all living things created, it is known that when an increase of populus reaches a point of demand upon the food chain all suffer. Many species, become canibalistic in attempt to survive. The extenuating circumstances thus results in the orignal percieved assumption. (Wow! is'nt that perplex irony!) I guess, the known FAMILIAR SUCCESSIONS must be our assumptions that a new product must indicate "a lack of".

Are mychorriza symbiot's? Is there abscence a non-impact upon our forests? On May 18,1980; many Oregoinians and Washingtonians observed a natural wonder in the eruption of Mt. Saint Helens. A few weeks later, scientists discovered while looking at soils which previously were subjected to extreme temperatures (immensily heated by pyrochrastic flows)the presence of mychorriza. How than did they survive? Are they not known to be symbiotic? Is it possible that they were previously characterized with thermoanaesthesia qualities? Or now possess them. Possibly,they may not be as symbiotic as once thought, since no vegetation nor photosynthetic process was availble. Could it be possible that mychorriza have a skin substance, indiscernable to microscopic analysis that can withstand extreme temperatures?

How familiar are we with the process succcessions of forest micro-organisms, especially since we are limited in our observations through microscopic segregation analysis. What activities have been observed in these lab isolated situations, that leads us to know there active functions in forest soils? I guess we could ask Superman, but his xray eyes could not penetrate their skin capable of withstanding extreme heats.

One simplistic way of obtaining "goals of intercepting diruptive changes" is: DO NOT INTRODUCE UNKNOWNS. Is this a narrow focus, maybe. But I choose to tell my client's that mychorrizal use is in experimental stages. Bob, as you eluded to Fen-phen resulted in misinformation which for a few meant death. Thus, bad judgement!

Concerning, your statement: "...she seems not to care about our categories--or our opinions", she being a fictious personified inappetent, thus incapable of stopping pollution and changes brought about by animated life.

I do not percieve Peter nor myself to be judgmental about discovery, but rather observational.

By the way Bob, if Mt. Saint Helens could'nt destroy the myc.'s, than I rather think that you possibly would be on a life-long conquest with your micro-laser. However, on second thought you may have stumbled onto a benefit of "Buy a can, save a tree". You could apply for multiple federal grants to investigate these inpentretable beings. Which could possibly have alien origins. Just think your own close encounter!

P.S. Peter, How is that for falling off the edge.

Stephen Wiley
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<Peter Torres>
Reply to post by Bob W, on January 22, 1999 at 23:11:39:

Extensively, (through the binoculars), there are many limiting factors that keep plants within their natural ranges, and so, local ecologies are resilient.
Intensively, (through the microscope), there is a single factor (parameter) in any given niche that can expand or contract that niche with a minute change.
That is; a minute quantitative change in a widespread ecological parameter can alter a habitat by adding or subtracting a species or an association from the habitat, or more likely, around the edges (extremes) of the habitats. This eliminates many niches within the habitat. In itself, such changes are neither good nor bad, because Father Nature is non-judgemental.
To me, it is bad (I am judgemental) because I prefer heterogeneity. Species richness. OOPS-So I planted some Korean dogwoods on Oregon. I hope we have appropriate mycorrhizas here- if I thought I could spend $5 and doctor the soil with exotic mycs I would.
And while I am increasing species diversity by importing Kousas, I am diminishing habitat for native redcedar. That's O.K. Anything I do along these lines is not a drop in the bucket compared to putting in a lawn or a parking lot. Still, I care. Full of contradictions.
You think that ^few cans of "Uncle Charlie's Myccorhiza for Trees"^ is a laugh, but please note that that this is going into a large-scale, nationwide commercial enterprise. If it really does make a difference, then it will change native landscapes. Urban landscapes tend to be homogenous anyway, with trees adapted to urbisols instead of natural soils, maybe it will be a good thing.
The introduction of non-native organisms should never be ignored. So I'm glad we're talking about it. Peter
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Reply to post by Peter Torres, on January 22, 1999 at 15:53:39:

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