Throughout the annals of history, humanity has been intrigued by the biological and mystical role of mushrooms.
This fascination has incited both misconstrued perceptions and groundbreaking discoveries in the realm of science and medicine.
Mycologists — biologists who have devoted their expertise to fungi and its genetic and biochemical makeup, as well as its implications in food and medicine — refer to the mushroom as Mother Nature’s apex decomposer. Without this unique organism, we would be swimming in debris. From tiny pine needles to the trees from which they fall, mushrooms are responsible for breaking down organic matter.
To be clear, mushrooms and fungi are not the same though they are often used interchangeably. A mushroom is the “fruit” or cap on top of a stem whereas the fungi is the entire organism including the mycelium (roots) and mushroom. Moreover, not all fungi produce mushrooms.
Existing on all seven continents, the ubiquitous mushroom is an under-appreciated living organism. But thanks to recent literature on the benefits of mushrooms, such as Michael Pollen’s “How to Change Your Mind” — the New York Times bestseller about psychedelics and their healing capacities — and the decriminalization of “magic mushrooms,” people are finding auspicious potentials of mushrooms in the boundaries of new rules and new insight.
In his book, “In the Company of Mushrooms: A Biologist’s Tale,” retired microbiologist Elio Shaechter chronicled the mushroom’s existence since the Stone Age, building a verifiable case as to its crucial relationship to our existence. He pointed out that mushrooms are essential to decomposition, aiding to recycle much of the earth’s accumulated dead vegetation that humans would otherwise be buried under.
Shaecter also touched on the varied ways mushrooms have become part of our diets, as well as their healing properties. One of his most interesting arguments is that fungi and humans share a bond more intrinsically entwined than that of humans and animals.
The Registry of Mushrooms in Works of Art, which can be found on the North American Mycological Association website, displays various artwork depicting mushrooms. The registry began in the early 2000s when three scientists — mycologist Hanns Kreisel from Greifswald University in Germany, chemist Tjakko Stijve from Switzerland and Schaechter — grew curious about the varied depictions of mushrooms in art. They believed the manner in which artists portrayed mushrooms on canvas revealed much about the societal values contemporary to the work itself.
Take Giovanni Francesco Barbieri’s “The Greengrocer,” a Baroque still-life from the early 17th century. The oil painting comes from a private collection based in Vignola, an Italian agricultural city of Modena, and depicts a woman selling mushrooms and other sundries.
“This is a good indication of what species were consumed at the time,” Schaecter wrote on his blog alongside the painting.
In the 19th century, when The Victorian Fairy Paintings surfaced in Great Britain, artist Walter Jenks Morgan’s placement of tiny, lithe fairies prancing on mushrooms is perhaps suggestive of the fungi’s mystical properties as well as society’s growing curiosity of the supernatural.
Later, in the 1960s, an entirely new art form cropped up in America in conjunction with rock ‘n’ roll, the political upheavals the nation faced with the Vietnam War and the subsequent desire for transcendence. San Francisco artists created pulsating rock posters replete with psychedelic motifs, trippy Art Nouveau lettering and scintillating color palettes to promote acts of equally electrifying caliber: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and The Doors.
The counterculture and its rejection of the Vietnam War, as well as the country’s overall body politics, gravitated towards hallucinogens and other drugs that became a conduit for escapism.
Artist David Singer’s 1970 poster, “The Mushroom Man,” which he created for the Grateful Dead, displays two mushrooms disproportionately larger than a tiny man. A description of the poster identifies this man to be “stripped of his vanities, padded towards the cosmos via the not-so-subtle mushroom portal.”
The Grateful Dead was not the only band to showcase magic mushrooms in its posters. A rare concert poster from southern rock band the Allman Brothers Band’s 1972 performance — the first after guitarist Duane Allman’s fatal motorcycle accident — depicts the band’s logo, a mushroom and is currently on sale for $2,500.00.
“When we started the band, we did a lot of psilocybin and it had become a symbol of the Allman Brothers.”
“When we started the band, we did a lot of psilocybin and it had become a symbol of the Allman Brothers,” said original member and drummer Butch Trucks in a Relix interview.
In fact, the band made the mushroom symbol permanent. Lyle Tuttle, named the “West Coast guru of the electric needle” by The New York Times, is responsible for the matching mushroom insignia tattoo that the band members sport on their right calves.
But, according to DrugPolicy.org, “beginning in the 1960s and continuing today, sensationalized media coverage of psychedelic-related deaths misattributed the role of psychedelics like psilocybin in causing suicide or accidental death.”
Psilocybin (pronounced silo-so-bin) is a hallucinogenic compound found in over 100 species of mushrooms and falls under the Schedule 1 list of narcotics along with acid, heroin, ecstasy and marijuana. People who ingest psilocybin mushrooms experience altered outlooks and warped perceptions.
The Controlled Substances Act, a 1970 drug policy adopted during the Nixon Administration, categorized Schedule 1 drugs, defined by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration [DEA], as “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Unlike other drugs in this category with their high risks of overdose and addiction, psychedelic mushrooms are hard to abuse.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2016 cited “2% of people (roughly 475,000 people) aged 12 and older report using heroin in the past month [and] 0.4% (roughly 948,000 people) reported using it in the past year” — a result of opioid-addicted individuals looking for a cheaper, more accessible fix.
Psilocybin mushroom users, conversely, between 2002 and 2014, accounted for an annual average of 0.1% of the U.S. population, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration [SAMHSA], which governs the largest annual national survey on drug use.
In May this year, three years after a team of scientists at NYU studied psilocybin mushrooms and their effects on cancer patients, Denver decriminalized psychedelic mushrooms for possession and recreational use. In other words, law enforcement will no longer prosecute those who have magic mushrooms for these purposes. Growing and selling mushrooms, however, will remain illegal.
A month later, Oakland, California decriminalized psilocybin mushrooms, too; however, extended the law to also include other psychoactive plants and fungi (ayahuasca and peyote; synthetic hallucinogens like Molly and LSD are not decriminalized). This initiative aims to “empower the Oakland community by restoring their relationship to nature” according to a report cited by NPR.
A chasm exists between those who oppose and those who support these recent decriminalization laws. Critics contend that legalization will only open Pandora’s box, encouraging individuals to experiment with harder drugs. Advocates, however, attest to the remedial qualities existing in psilocybin and believe it could replace antidepressants, a development that would financially impact Big Pharma.
According to Nicole Stewart of the group Decriminalize Nature Oakland, “We just need the green light to bring these healing tools above ground and carry on what has been done for centuries.” She believes in healing through our relationship with nature, and that the decriminalization may allow Oakland to be “a beacon of hope and healing.”
In winter of 2016 the aforementioned team of 13 researchers at New York University conducted a clinical trial to test the effects of psilocybin on cancer-related illnesses. The scientists operated a controlled experiment in which psilocybin was given to 29 cancer patients. After the participants took psilocybin, their cancer-related anxiety and depression dissipated. In conjunction with psychotherapy, “single moderate-dose psilocybin produced rapid, robust and enduring anxiolytic and antidepressant effects in patients with cancer-related psychological distress,” the study demonstrated.
Six months after, in a follow-up report, “52% of the study’s participants rated the psilocybin experience as the singular (or in the top five) most spiritually significant experiences of their entire lives, and 70% rated it as the singular (or in the top five) most personally meaningful experience of their entire lives.”
Nonetheless, Michael Pollan told NPR “it’s important to note that these are still small studies and there’s a lot more research to do.”
An enduring lack of understanding of psilocybin mushrooms’ properties has created an obstacle that is beginning to gain traction within America’s borders. With medical breakthroughs such as the aforementioned, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, consequently, filed legislation this June to allow scientists and researchers to study the chemical composition of psilocybin. She took to Twitter to shed light on her decision making.
“From the opioid crisis to psilocybin’s potential with PTSD, it’s well past time we take drug use out of criminal consideration and into medical consideration. That begins with research. I’m proud to introduce an amendment that helps scientists do their jobs.”
Ocasio-Cortez is not the only individual who uses social media to promote mushroom discovery and awareness. William Padilla-Brown, self-taught in mycology and phycology, has an extensive relationship with mushrooms, fungi and algae. He cites “Native Science: Natural Laws of Interdependence,” a book about Indigenous science, as the single impetus that significantly changed his perception of the world.
During his teens his education was fragmented, a result of frequent moving. With course curriculums between his last and new schools failing to match up, he decided to drop out of high school at the age of 16. Two years later, he began cultivating oyster mushrooms in his central Pennsylvania home, then dabbled with gourmet mushrooms, which he sells to local restaurants and farmer’s markets.
In the ensuing years, he has travelled to most states in America, foraging various forest floors for fungi, sometimes discovering species that have yet to be identified by science. Various colleges and universities have used his mushroom cultures in the lab. Most recently, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, invited him to give a talk on fungi and share his success.
Padilla-Brown is also the first person in the English-speaking world to publish any literature on cordyceps mushroom cultivation. (The Cordyceps Cultivation Handbook can be instantly downloaded for $10 via his website). Additionally, he has started the first public cordyceps farm to cultivate in the United States.
Cordyceps are a very powerful medicinal mushroom, Padilla-Brown told me over the phone, and are one of the more renowned mushrooms in Chinese medicine, along with Reishi mushrooms.
“Cordyceps are great for energy production, great for respiratory health, great for DNA protection from modern contaminants and it’s also an aphrodisiac. There also has been more research coming out saying that it is beneficial for people with HIV and malaria,” he said.
He is not the first person to realize the benefits of Cordyceps, though, and several health and nutrition companies have launched Cordyceps capsules, tinctures and elixir mixes. The problem with these products, Padilla-Brown explained, is that they “completely disconnect you from the mushroom.” The remedial properties may be intact and the company may place a stock art photo of a mushroom on the packaging, but “people don’t know what these mushrooms look like,” he said.
For this reason, it is a passion of his and his partner to put the mushrooms he forages and cultivates into food and medicinal products.
For the past eight years, he has been cultivating fungi and algae, and making it to a viable, lucrative business through his website MycoShop and Instagram page (@mycosymbiote) where he not only sells Cordyceps-Habanero hot sauce and cider but also cultures and literature for those interested in mycology.
He uses the funds he raises from these products as well as from spirulina, a superfood he cultivates, to save money for his future in mycology. Every time he sees an exotic mushroom in the forest, he imagines its capacities.
“There’s so many mushrooms that I’ve found and I’m like, ‘wow, this looks like a crazy medicinal mushroom, and has so much potential for all sorts of fields — medicinal, and textiles.” He wants to put himself in the position to conduct the research himself because its expensive and “nobody’s going to care about this stuff the way I care about it,” he said with conviction.
Several Asian medicinal mushrooms — shiitake, enoki, maitake and oyster — are packed with health benefits. Shiitake mushrooms may help fight cancer, regulate the heart, and boost immunity. Enoki mushrooms are loaded in B vitamins and antioxidants. Maitake, which can grow up to 100 pounds and have been given the name “king of the mushrooms,” regulates cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure levels, promotes fertility, may help combat tumors and improve the immune system. Oyster mushrooms reduce inflammation and cholesterol, improve brain health an antioxidant levels, and possible block cancer growth.
It is Padilla-Brown’s plan to expose the world to the many beneficial fungi and design applications, be it at college campuses and universities (some campuses have used his mushroom cultures in the lab) or social media platforms.
He exposes his 12.6K Instagram followers to his cultivation, grow and overall relationship with mushrooms. In a recent post to his Instagram story, he recorded his friend, at Cracker Barrel, tearing off pieces of Cordyceps mushroom into his tea. In another post, he recorded himself making a vegan soup made of Chanterelles mushrooms, rich in iron and ideal for brain function, that he foraged in the woods the previous day (“I eat mushrooms every day,” he said). He has also gone behind the scenes to reveal his steps in growing fresh spirulina, the blue-green algae superfood he sells via his account. Instagram, he said, has served to be an auspicious platform for him to preach about fungi.
Aside from its lucrative avenue, Instagram has also been fundamental to his relationships and experiences. An organizer from FORM, a music and arts festival in Arcosanti, Arizona, reached out to him to attend as a guest speaker.
Brittany, my friend who attended the festival for the fourth year in a row this past May, immediately told me to get in touch with William when I told her I was writing an article on mushrooms.
“I had such a crush on his brain,” she wrote in a text.
Since Padilla-Brown’s talk at FORM, Brittany has incorporated mushrooms into her daily diet. She started taking lion’s mane, in capsule form, after her mother’s stroke and subsequent mild dementia diagnosis. “Research says it’s really effective in preventing dementia and William said it rebuilds parts that protect your brain,” she said.
Brittany also takes Reishi mushrooms, a gift from her acupuncturist who has been “taking them for years, and said she’s never had a cold since she started, so she swears by them.”
Aside from their medicinal benefits, mushrooms have become of interest in the world of textile and design. Ecovative Design, for instance, has designed a textile application that uses the thready vegetative tissue of fungi known as mycelium to grow materials “that replace plastics and reduce animal slaughter,” as indicated on its website. The company exclusively licensed this application to Bolt Threads, a bioengineering company that makes mushroom leather handbags.
The San Francisco startup known as MycoWorks is also revolutionizing leather with mycelium; and Mushroom Packaging, another affiliate of Ecovative, has designed 100% compostable packaging for companies and small business owners to sustainably ship their products, circumventing the need for plastic and styrofoam.
Humans are hard-wired to fear the unknown.
Humans are hard-wired to fear the unknown.
“So many people have mycophobia in this country,” William Padilla-Brown said with a dejected tone. Sometimes, when he is giving talks and presentations, people jump away from his mushroom-and-fungi-covered table.
However, records of Indigenous people reveal a steadfast and unique relationship with mushrooms for healing purposes. Studying mushrooms and other living organisms for that matter is essential for a sustainable earth.
I grew up in the 90s with DARE, one of Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No”, anti-drug programs. In fifth grade, a police officer would make weekly visits to my elementary school where he ingrained in my mind that the moment I stepped foot in middle school come September, I would be offered marijuana. Then I would die.
Several decades later, the decriminalization of marijuana coupled with discoveries in the biochemistry of the cannabis plant have gained popularity. Cannabidiol [CBD], the non-intoxicating compound extracted from marijuana that boasts several health benefits, has made its way into coffee, dog treats, and lip balm.
Mushrooms and fungi are not far behind thanks to recent politics, mycologists and their audiences. Alice in Wonderland, the red and green mushrooms Mario and Luigi consume to increase in size or the brown toadstools that try to kill the Italiam plumbers will no longer be the provincial baseline of mushrooms. Using an outdated system to understand a mushroom’s effects — be it gourmet, medicinal or psychedelic — does not work. Medicinal breakthroughs are not novel concepts.
If the United States government can dish out millions of dollars to fund hologram comedians, forgotten storage and abandoned buildings, then it can fund ongoing experiments in the realm of mushrooms to ultimately benefit our diet, mental stability, and overall health.
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