In “Year of the Flood,” Canadian author Margaret Atwood refers to mushrooms as “the roses in the garden.”
It was the first time I had considered mushrooms to be beautiful. The second time materialized during an interview with William Padilla-Brown.
Self-taught in mycology and phycology, William Padilla-Brown 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 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 ten dollars 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 recently on a June night, 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.
Various medical journals corroborate these health benefits.
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) 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 blue-green 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.
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 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 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 (mentioned in a previous Public Goods blog post about ugly produce), my friend who attended the festival for the fourth year in a row this past May, was quick to drop William’s name 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.”
To further exemplify his love of mushrooms and fungi with his community, he hosts cooking workshops. Through culinary education, he teaches individuals how to clean, prepare and cook various mushrooms, giving them the tools they need to incorporate healthier choices into their diets. By cooking and sharing a meal, Padilla-Brown creates a level of intimacy that is hard not to want to be a part of. It is both remarkable and refreshing to see someone so willing to teach, someone so magnanimous with his expertise.
That willingness only strengthens with Mycosymbiotics, his Mushroom and Arts Festival that celebrated its fifth year this August. This year the festival showcased prominent influencers in the realm of mushrooms and fungi whose inquisitive topics — environmental restoration and remediation, gourmet cooking and food security — had attendees understanding ecological education in a new light.
Festival attendees enjoyed live music performances (Padilla-Brown also raps), drum circles, workshops and mushroom tastings. Padilla-Brown is also proud to announce a variety of sponsors: Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative will be the premiere produce sponsor of the festival and Four Sigmatic has contributed their mushroom matcha and coffee.
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.
Late one night, scrolling through a sea of Instagram posts, I was taken back by Padilla-Brown’s. Homeostasis, he said, will only be achieved through symbiosis with local systems, systems both natural and social. Only when we find this balance, when our physical and emotional bodies are nourished, is when we may expand our consciousness via physical, mental and spiritual travel. Some of us are blessed with families that create and provide this balance for us early in our experiences. Many of us must create this for ourselves.
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