Just what is mycorrhizae and, equally important, just how in the world do you pronounce it?  Although the word, “mycorrhiza” was coined back in 1885, it is generally unfamiliar and can be a tongue-tangler to modern gardeners.

In order to pronounce the word, it is helpful to take a look at the roots of the word (no pun intended). “Myco” comes from a Greek word meaning “fungi”. Also coming from the Greek, “rhiza” means “root”. So mycorrhizae (mico-rye-zay, plural of mico-rye-za) refers to the fungi that inhabit a plants roots, usually in a mutually beneficial way for the plant and the fungi.

These fungi, which haveeen found to inhabit the roots of 80% of all species studied, receive a constant and direct supply of carbohydrates, such as glucose and sucrose from the host plant. The fungi, having a larger surface area, with long, thread-like filaments, called hyphae, are able to supply the plant with a greater amount of water and minerals than it could suck up on its own. This is especially important for plants grown in dry conditions. Without these fungi, plants may have a difficult time taking in nutrients in high clay, strongly pH soils or when nutrients are slow to decay.

This mychorrhizal system benefits the plant in other ways, such as creating a matrix with other plants in the area. This actually allows this community of plants to communicate with each other. For example, research has shown that when a plant is attacked by aphids, it will produce volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Then, via the network of fungi in its roots, it is able to send out a warning to other plants, which will also release VOCs.

Plants associated with mychorrizae are often more resistant to disease and drought, and the fungi in their roots provide protection from adverse soil conditions, such as acidity and soil contaminanats. By introducing mycorrhizae to plants struggling to grow in barren soils, they will have a distinct advantage over other plants that do not have the benefit of mycorrhiza.

There are two forms of mycorhhizae: endo- and ecto-. The ecto- variety associates with certain trees, but the endo- type is the kind that associates with most other plants, including the garden variety.  Clearly, mycorhhizae are good for plants, and great for gardeners.