Some of my favourite things that live in the soil

Actinomycetes. Bacteriological goths—they just like being different. Although they are bacteria, they grow in threads like fungi. Actinomycetes are responsible for that fresh, ‘earthy’ scent in the soil. They are also the source of multiple medicines (see Health chapter).

Arbuscular mycorrhizae. These fungi form symbiotic relationships with plant roots by physically penetrating the root for a good hold. They help the plants take up water and nutrients from the soil, making the plant more resilient and able to cope with stress such as drought. They provide physical protection from pathogens that might want to munch away at the roots. In return, the plants release exudates, sticky stuff from their roots, that feed the fungi. These types of fungus are believed to have helped the first land plants establish on Earth’s first soils. Unfortunately for Brassicas such as cauliflower and cabbage, they cannot enter into this useful partnership with arbuscular mycorrhizae.

Blue banded bees. The females of these delightfully stripy blue-bottomed bees build their nests in clay soil in the ground, and sometimes in mud bricks and soft mortar.

Bilby. A type of bandicoot, the bilby is Australia’s version of the easter bunny. I have never met a bilby but I would very much like to. Professional diggers, they make spiral-shaped burrows that predators find it hard to navigate. Not overly picky eaters, they will eat fungi, plants, and insects. They would make a low maintenance travelling companion on a desert crossing as they don’t need to drink water; they can get what they need from their food.

Cage fungi (Ileodictyon gracile). A jack-in-the-box fungus that can give unsuspecting hikers a start. At first they look like a small egg on the ground, but when nudged, mature cage fungi spring open and might even roll away.

Echidna. There are so many reasons to like echidnas. The fierce spikes but adorable waddle walk. Baby echidnas are called puggles. Surprisingly good swimmers, they hold their ant-hunting snout up like a snorkel. When a lady echidna decides it is time to mate, she has a group of the lads follow her, eventually choosing whoever is willing to waddle along with her for the longest.

Ghost fungi (Omphalotus nidiformis). During the day they look like an oyster mushroom, but at night glow a soft green. Don’t touch or eat though—they are poisonous.

Mycobacterium vaccae. The saying goes that gardening is cheaper than therapy and at the end you get tomatoes. Mycobacterium vaccae might be one reason gardening can improve mental health. Initially tested as a supporting treatment for chemotherapy for lung cancer patients, it ended up being quite useless at that but had the curious side effect of improving patient mood. Research in rodent models has found that injecting this bacteria reduces the anxiety that comes from stressful situations. The researchers are hoping to develop a sort of ‘anxiety immunisation’.

Pseudoscorpion. Like me, they are fond of old books, though what attracts them are the tasty booklice and dust mites. Pseudoscorpions look a bit like tiny scorpions, they are usually <10mm long, but without the stabby tail. When they’re not gorging on book pests, they live in the soil or leaf litter, eating springtails, silverfish, fly larvae and mites.

Vampyrellids. It’s in the name. These bright red amoeba drill prefect circle holes that look like vampire tooth marks into fungal cells walls. Vampyrellids then attach themselves to the fungal hyphae, releasing enzymes to degrade the cell wall and sucking the cell dry. They might sound nasty but vampyrellids can be useful, attacking pathogen fungi such as root rot.

A (very) brief note on pairing wine and food

Snorkelling and sea sponges