Fungi Key to Native Prairie Plantings

fungi prairie plant native

There’s a fungus among us – but that could be a good thing! Each new study on prairie restoration seems to add to the pile of evidence that native prairie plants do better with beneficial fungi living on, and even in, their roots.

In the plant-fungus partnership, the plant shares with the fungus some of the sugars it makes from sunshine. The fungus, in turn, vastly enhances the plant’s ability to obtain nutrients and water from the soil.

Such mutually beneficial associations between plants and root fungi are the rule rather than the exception. More than 80% of land plants depend on root fungi.

Seen in that light, using fungi in prairie restoration isn’t giving the plants anything extra – it’s just returning what’s been missing.

Why have the fungi gone missing in the first place? They’re susceptible to things that have contributed to the disappearance of prairies over the past couple of centuries. Tillage harms them, as well as exposing them to sunlight, which they don’t tolerate well. Pesticides knock out fungi, along with the weeds they’re meant to target.

Restoring that essential below-ground ingredient can have powerful effects on what happens above ground as well. Liz Koziol, a researcher at the University of Kansas, found that native plants started with their traditional fungal associates had a 40% higher chance of survival – and grew three times larger – than those without.

Storebought fungal inoculants are available, but may not be the best choice. The fungal species in these over-the-counter treatments are likely not the natives – and may act like invasive species in their own right, outcompeting the native fungi without benefiting the native plants.

OSU professor Gail Wilson has documented the lack of benefits of such commercial fungal inoculants for native plant species in her research – but she’s also hit upon a simple, low-cost alternative. Mixing soil from nearby native prairies into restoration plantings, she found, both increased the survival of native prairie plant species, and limited the spread of invasive plants.

Tag(s): native plants

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