Monday, March 27, 2006


The Rev. Dana Prom Smith, S.T.D., Ph.D. (3/19/06)

During my internship at UCLA’s Neuro-psychiatric Institute one thing became clear to me. Most of the stuff that really counts is unseen and unheard. In psychodynamic terms the stuff that really counts is in the unconscious. In horticultural terms it’s in the mycorrhizosphere.

The mycorrhizosphere, the soil around a plant’s root, is where the mycorrhizae do their thing, good or bad. Mycorrhizae are literally “fungus roots.” NAU’s Prof. Nancy C. Johnson, a leading researcher in mycorrhizae, calls them “symbiotic associations” or cooperative life-sustaining systems in which both plants and fungal communities around the plant’s roots can benefit. They’re akin in psychodynamics to unconscious associations.

Mycorrhizal associations affect a plant’s ability to acquire mineral nutrients from the soil. When mutualistic, that is, cooperative, the plants gain nutrients with help from the fungi, and the fungi gain carbohydrates from the plants. A balanced relationship of mutual gains for the plants and fungi is something like a functional family in which everyone gets what they need to thrive. However, sometimes a family loses its equilibrium, becoming dysfunctional, when some members are given special attention, good or bad. Plants often need specific chemical nutrients, such as nitrogen or phosphorus, for plant growth or flowering and fruiting. When added to the soil, the balance in the relationship between the plants and their fungal partners can be inadvertently changed with some plants deprived of what they need to thrive.

New Year’s resolutions don’t often work because the unconscious mind subverts the conscious mind. The conscious mind wants to lose weight, but the unconscious mind craves cool, soothing ice cream after a buzz saw day. As a professor once said, “The mind’s like an iceberg, ten percent shows, but that unseen ninety percent calls the shots.” So it is that gardeners should pay mind to those symbiotic associations beneath the garden’s surface.

Paradoxically, it turns out that repeated use of chemical fertilizers can create colonies of parasitic mycorrhizae just as repeated broken resolutions can breed a sense of defeat. It’s called the Law of Unintended Consequences which means that chemical fertilizers are not, as advertised, always horticulturally friendly. Prof. Johnson and her students are discovering that the ratio between available phosphorus and nitrogen may affect the outcome of fertilization. Mycorrhizae seem to be more mutualistic when phosphorus is in shorter supply than nitrogen relative to the plant’s needs.

As common sense tells us, relationships are the key to life underground and in the unconscious. Salvador Dali graphically illustrated the unconscious associations in his early Surrealistic painting Persistence of Memory. Melting watches are set against the backdrop of a horizon in which sky and sea are fused in a timeless continuum. It may puzzle the conscious mind, but the unconscious understands a sense of time melting in the face of timelessness.

Great basketball players don’t deliberately think through their moves, calculating the physics of thrust, velocity, and parabolic curves. They seemingly shoot baskets on the spur of the moment, trusting their unconscious processes with their mutualistic associations of continuing practice.

Mycorrhizal fungi sleep in beds with the roots of a plant, intimately associated with and actually becoming a part of the roots as they help move nutrients from the soil into the plant. They also enrich of the soil with organic matter by building networks of thread-like mycelia, interwoven vegetative masses of tubular filaments resembling pieces of modern art or spider webs gone wild. When mutualistic they nourish plants as well as soils.

While our soil on the Colorado Plateau may be short on organic matter, it is rich with many different types of mycorrhizal fungi. Good gardening helps these underground allies stimulate their mutualistic, not parasitic, associations. This means reducing the use of inorganic phosphorus fertilizers and using instead more organic amendments and compost with ample nitrogen and less phosphorus to help the development of mutualistic mycorrhizopheres.

As Plato observed long ago, appearance is not always reality. Horticultural reality is, also, not always in the appearance, but often in the mycorrhizosphere where fertility is natural, not artificial, organic rather than chemical.

Copyright © Dana Prom Smith 2006