They’ve been revered, stigmatized, used as food and medicine, and taken us to greater depths of consciousness. Beings of the underworld and also the earthly landscape, mushrooms have fascinated humankind for as long as we’ve existed. While often lumped in with vegetables, fungi are actually more closely related to animals than plants. It is believed that we diverged from our fungal companions around 460 million years ago. While plants expel oxygen and breathe in carbon dioxide, mushrooms are like us and need to inhale oxygen in order to exhale CO2. 

Making up the earth’s largest organism, fungal communities beneath the soil connect across the planet. Paul Stamets, one of the world’s leading mycology experts, has claimed that mushrooms are “an essential component of our natural heritage and may be society’s greatest protection against microbial diseases.” Stamets reports that the use of mushrooms can boost the vitality of humans and the planet. [1] The global network of fungi is essential for ecosystem function. Mushrooms are some of the best recyclers in the world, decomposing plant matter and other materials in the environment. Without them, the earth would become filled with debris and life as we know it would come to an end. [2]

What are we afraid of?

A majority of mushroom’s mystique is founded upon their association with poison and death. This is likely also because we are cognizant of their power. French philosopher Voltaire once said, “A dish of mushrooms changed the destiny of Europe.” With the unparalleled ability to nourish us with medicine from the earth, mushrooms have long been honored for their therapeutic properties throughout the world. Fungal fruiting bodies contain high amounts of protein, polysaccharides, and potassium which nourish the system and contribute to healthy immune function. [3] The medicinal attributes of mushrooms are many-fold and could be explored in great depth. For a general overview of the medicinal properties of common mushroom varieties, check this chart.


Due to our close relation to the fungi kingdom, we are affected by similar diseases as they are, whereas plant illnesses typically do not affect humans. For example, both fungi and animals can get bacterial infections such as E. coli, Staph, and others. Humans are perfectly equipped to benefit from the natural defenses that mushrooms have evolved to fight infection. As a result, many antibiotics have been derived from them. [1]


As the health of our bodies is intrinsically linked to our spirit, we cannot talk about the medicine of mushrooms without bringing up the entheogenic (psychedelic) properties of the fungal kingdom. Archeological investigation has uncovered the use of mushrooms for both spiritual and religious purposes for various centuries. Mind-expanding mushrooms were used in religious ceremonies in ancient Mexico circa the 13-15th centuries. Roman Catholic priests documented the use of mushrooms by the people they colonized during the era of the Inquisition around 1519. People of the Siberian tundra used dissociative hallucinogenic fly agaric (Amanita muscaria) mushrooms during religious ceremonies, as did the Vikings. [3]

With the coexistent ability to heal or to kill, the reverence and fear of mushrooms continues to the present day. Some of this is shifting as more people become interested in their powerful medicinal and nutritional attributes. At the same time,  growing interest in the use of psilocybin, the active compound in certain types of psychoactive (magic) mushrooms (especially Psilocybe spp.) is shifting international perspective. Psilocybin is being investigated as a potential treatment option for depression, addictions, PTSD, reckoning with the news of a terminal illness, and other mental health issues. [4] Presently, local ordinances in Colorado, Oregon, and California have decriminalized psilocybin containing mushrooms for personal use or are working to do so. [5]


For hundreds of years, the western world feared mushrooms while they were simultaneously embraced in the East. Groups used mushrooms within their own communities and the knowledge was kept within their circles. This shifted in the late 19th century when the French began integrating them into their cuisine. This trend spread to the US, where people began to see the benefit both in the kitchen and for the body.  Foraging clubs begin to become popular, which bonded folks together around the identification and consumption of various types of mushrooms. 

So why do some parts of the world embrace mushrooms (“mycophiles”) while others are afraid of them (“mycophobes”)? According to Rye N Flint, a local mycologist and soil scientist in Hopland California, it stems from human’s desire to tame what is wild, “It is part of the indoctrination of city life and becoming afraid of the wild things in the country.” Flint says that those living in a rural environment are naturally more connected to the Earth, and are accustomed to getting their food from their surroundings. As a result of their acquired knowledge, they have less fear of obtaining their own food, since acquiring it from the land is a large part of life. [6]


What lurks below


So perhaps you’d like to explore the expansive realms of the mushroom kingdom. Those we see growing up from the soil is the fruiting body of mycelium, like a pear is to the tree from which it grows. The fruiting mushroom bodies take on completely different properties than the mycelium itself. Mushrooms have “roots” that connects to the underground fungal network between 400 to 500 million years old. Mycelium has a critical role in determining the function and structure of biodiversity in a given system. [7] In fact, dark matter, which is believed to be made up of 85% of the matter in the universe, including the planets and stars, follows the same mycological model. [8,9]

Mycelium is the symbiotic, mutual benefit between plant roots and fungal species. In this relationship, the fungus receives food from the plant, and the plant gets its essential nutrients from the soil where the fungi reside in what are termed mycorrhizal relationships. They are intrinsically connected. Plant and fungi connections are so specific, that expert mushroom foragers can tell which trees the specimens came from by looking only at a collection of picked mushrooms. [7]


Fungi are well suited to scavenge for water and nutrients in the soil, which is exactly what plants are seeking. And while plants excel at photosynthesis by taking sunlight and converting it into energy (carbon), fungi lack this ability. So, they both assist one another to exchange nutrients and carbon, much like an economic trade relationship between countries. This dynamic alliance is believed to have evolved millions of years ago. Fossil evidence suggests that some of the first land plants were already engaged in a symbiotic relationship with fungi. In present times, it is estimated that around 90% of flowering plants and conifer trees are engaged in a mycorrhizal relationship. [10]


Mushrooms can improve environmental health both inside and outside of the body. Mycelium is capable of destroying toxic environmental waste, a process known as Mycoremediation. By cultivating mycelium in your garden and by ingesting them, they can help to offset many of the toxins that can threaten the immune system and our collective environment. [11]


After the evolutionary divergence between fungi and animals, humans evolved to absorb nutrients within our stomach. Fungi evolved to digest its nutrients externally, which is believed to be why the cobweb-like cellular networks of mycelium exist. For both mushrooms and humans, beneficial bacteria are essential for good digestion and to help the process of nutrient absorption. Fungi and humans have developed complex microbiomes to aid digestion, evade disease, and prolong life. [11] Mushrooms break down compounds to fight off viruses, producing the same antiviral characteristics that our bodies need. During the dreary cold season, mushrooms are good companions because they come out of the rain, dying leaves, and general damp environments. Mushrooms degrade debris and turn that back into nutrients that humans can use (compost). [6]


In a way, mushrooms are taking advantage of us in order to maintain their existence. Mycelium produces mushrooms in order to spread its spores. The majority of spore proliferation happens from an organism eating them and carrying them elsewhere. Some insects are also the pawns of the all mighty fungus. “While humans often consider themselves to be the first farmers, ants have been doing this for millions of years,” Flint reported. Many ant species, such as leaf-cutters, take plant material and give it to a fungal mass within their underground nests. Instead of eating the leaves they collect, they feed on the fungus that has grown on the collected plant debris. [6]


Perhaps it's best to give in to this symbiotic relationship and use mushrooms since they are clearly already using us. 


You Can’t Tame the Wild


The vast majority of people have tasted the typical button mushroom found at most grocery stores throughout the world. Only certain varieties are equipped for personal or commercial cultivation. Lion’s mane, a powderpuff looking medical mushroom variety found in Northern California and beyond, can be cultivated on wood chips in a yard in the right conditions. 


Other species of mushrooms, like truffles, porcini (Boletus spp.), and many others cannot be grown in a laboratory environment. They require their native forest ecosystem in order to flourish, some for decades before a fruiting body emerges from the ground. Oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus spp.) grown in one part of the world will have a different color (bright colored pink and yellow in Asia and white in North America) and produce different nutrients with distinct compounds due to the growing conditions within the different environments. Lab grown mushrooms are selected for fruiting ability, size, and physical characteristics that make them the most marketable on grocery shelves. 


Mushrooms are strongly tuned into their environments and heavily influenced by differences in moisture levels. Wild growing mushrooms are influenced by the trees they grow under, their size, and how much sunlight hits them. Mushrooms may pop up a day or two before a storm in order to reap the benefits on the imminent rainfall. [6]


Medicine of the Resistance

Before the dawn of agriculture, hunting and gathering for food and medicine was common practice. Foraging is collecting from the earth what is needed to sustain yourself. While foraging for mushrooms and plant medicine is becoming more popular, the issue of local and federal law can intervene, trying to get people from being able to forage on public or private land. Connecting with the planet and reaping the bounty of its gifts hasn’t come without its share of struggle. 

Before the United States gained independence, colonists had broad rights to forage on public and private land. Hunting and fishing were considered the same as foraging and was a constitutional right in some areas. Foraging what was ensured the food supply for early colonists. But eventually these rights would come under attack due to an ugly combination of racism, classism, imperialism, and tension during the birth of the nation. [12]


Indigenous populations become some of the first victims of anti-foraging laws. Not long after English settlers came to the New World, they began pushing indigenous tribes off their land. Settlers armed themselves with guns and defended their newly stolen property. As more white settlers came over from Europe, the foraging practices of native tribes were used as justification to push them off their homelands. Indigenous groups were generally hunter/gatherers at this time, and many had not yet implemented agricultural practices. [12]


Once colonists began sweeping across the United States, the rich elite were those who gained capital by becoming landowners. And once that was accomplished, they held the key to nature and all within it. They made it so that those without land were unable to get sustenance as they once had before. This sentiment also justified colonist thought that the western world was civilized and must “tame” the “wild people.” “Wild people” in this context were those who have access to the commons and relied on nature to provide them what they needed, instead of the greater powers that be. [6] 


During the Civil War in the South, African slaves survived in large part by foraging on unoccupied lands. After the war, plantation owners moved to forcibly restrict the foraging rights of newly freed African slaves. Those who had come over from Africa earned money by selling food they got from the land, which granted them some level of self-sufficiency and income. But plantation owners enacted criminal trespassing laws and anti-foraging sentiments spread like wildfire across the South. The newly formed government historically sided with the expanding concept of limiting land rights to the commons. Eventually property laws enabled those who owned land to forbid foraging and became the norm across the nation.  


Anti-foraging laws also targeted rural white farmers who had once hunted and gathered various plants for food and medicine. For example, sustenance farmers in the Adirondack region of New York foraged for berries and herbs like ginseng and other wild plants which was an integral part of the local economy in the 1800’s. But once New York State’s “conservation movement” began, the push to protect the land came from outside elites who wanted to keep the land for themselves and cut rural populations off from their self-sufficiency. 


But these developments have not crushed those who still fight for the independence of the commons. Some people prefer to get their food from natural sources unaltered by the modern-day agricultural system. It is also a cheaper (free) alternative to getting it at a store. Some foragers point to higher nutrition content, overall greater flavor profile, and connection to nature as key reasons to get their food from the land. It makes food systems more resilient by creating low cost local food options that also reduces waste. Research also suggests that foraging can benefit emotional and physical wellbeing for those of all income levels. [12]


The war on foraging is a war on nature (and humans) that continues to the present day. So, what can folks do the combat colonial anti-foraging sentiment that still pervades in our society? Learn the plants, mushrooms, and other foods found in your area. Grow as much food and medicine as you can to supplement your needs to not have to get everything from the store. Not only does it save money, it also decreases the reliance on fossil fuels used in transport. It gets your hands in the soil to reap the benefits of nature’s bounty, and supplement your personal microbiome (gut bacteria) . Train your eye to see the fungal companions that pop up around you and the trees in which they have a symbiotic relationship. 


Foraging Tips


Those who have an interest in mushroom picking should always rely on the assistance of a local expert, as well as a field guide. Due to the great complexity of the fungi kingdom, it is essential to know the exact species that you gather to ensure your safety. Foragers must be in tune with their surroundings to ensure that their harvesting practices are done in accordance with the Earth. Join groups who have the same intent. Mushroom forager clubs are rising in popularity across the US. There are also online forums where photos can be uploaded and mycologists of all experience levels can chime in to help folks figure out what species they found. 


Rye N. Flint reports that when a mushroom variety has been positively identified, the general rule is to pick ⅓ of a patch. Mushrooms reach maturity at varying times, and the window for harvest is relatively short (from 3-5 days for most species). The aim is to collect the finished ones and leave the older and baby mushrooms alone to do their thing. Flint emphasizes that baby mushrooms are still in the process of growing and have not reached their ideal flavor profile. Well intentioned cooks and mushroom fanatics know that the best flavor comes from those in the ideal window of maturity. [6]


Older mushrooms past their prime for picking will function as vehicles to spread their spores throughout the ground, injecting a new diversity in the soil for their offspring. Spores need to spread in order for mushrooms to reproduce. Do not pull mushrooms straight out of the ground. Instead, cut them at the base with a sharp knife to leave their roots intact to ensure the expansion of the future generations of mushrooms. [13]


It is not advisable to eat mushrooms out in the field. Foragers want to make sure their identification is 100% accurate before they can ingest with confidence. Rye N. Flint mentioned it took him years to be able to distinguish between species. He suggests going on guided treks with experienced mycologists in order to hone your skills.  


This is also because mushrooms are best when cooked. Cooking them breaks down their tough skin to release their flavor and medicinal compounds. Once the mushrooms have been harvested, clean the mushrooms with a damn paper towel or cloth. Do not use any that are discolored or mushy. It is recommended to try a small amount of a harvested mushroom first to see if there is any reaction. Even if a selected type is safe to eat, it is best to see how your system adapts before eating more. Some folks with sensitive digestion may have a reaction if they are trying a wild harvested variety for the first time. [6]

Wild harvesting has become a treasured pastime (or obsession) for some. And while getting them from the forest takes time rather than money, some mushrooms are worth their weight in gold. One such prized fungus is the truffle, known as the “diamond of the kitchen”. They are sniffed out by pigs or dogs who are specifically trained to find them. A forager cannot touch them with bare hands, otherwise it could rot. If the truffle isn’t yet mature, it must be left in the ground until it comes into its full fruition. This delicate blend of patience and craft racks up a high rate of labor to bring this revered delicacy to the table, making truffles one of the most coveted and expensive foods on earth. [3]

Treasure Hunting in Mendo


The vast expanse of the mushroom kingdom can be found across the world. North America is especially rich in the mushroom varieties, and California is no exception. While the options are limitless, here are a few local varieties of note to watch out for:


Candy caps (Lactarius spp.)- A northern California delicacy that is notorious for its sweet, maple syrup or fenugreek-like flavor. Many foodies have taken advantage of its attributes and created Candy Cap ice cream, creme brulee, infused whiskey, and much more. This mushroom variety can look awfully close to Deadly Galerina, which should be avoided. [6,14]


“All mushrooms are edible, but some only once.” ~Croatian proverb


Mushroom poisoning can be avoided by properly identifying the species you wish to ingest. Various historical figures have fallen victim to the perils of mushroom misidentification. Mushroom poisoning can result in nausea, vomiting, and sometimes death. While needing further investigation, it has been suggested that Milk Thistle (Silybum marianum) could be a possible antidote. When mushroom poisoning occurs, the toxins in the body get reabsorbed through your bile and circulate through the liver. Milk thistle is believed to stop the bile reabsorption process and allow toxins to pass through the liver and out of the body. [6,15] 


Turkey tail (Trametes versicolor)- One of the most common mushrooms found in North America, Turkey Tail grows on hardwood logs and stumps in order to decompose them. They possess vast medicinal benefits, including as an immune modulator and have been shown to help fight cancer. Paul Stamets reported his mother was able to beat Stage 4 breast cancer by taking high amounts of the mushroom. Various clinical trials have explored the mushroom’s anticancer potential. [16] Folks in Northern California also collect them to make jewelry. They are abundant statewide and are relatively easy to identify. False turkey tails are medicinal as well, but not as strongly. [6]


Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus)- A tasty mushroom variety that also boasts extensive healing potential. This mushroom is well renowned for its ability to heal wounds and is found in many natural health brain formulas to boost cognitive function. Research out of Malaysia found that Lion's Mane can help stimulate nerve growth (neurogenesis) and rebuild nerve fibers. [17] It is also known for its ability to decrease inflammation, fight cancer, and improve digestive health. [18] 


Hedgehog mushrooms (Hydnum spp.), - Another easy to identify mushroom great for newby foragers, hedgehogs resemble chanterelles but have a “spine-like” underside for gills which is their defining characteristic. This mushroom is an important food source for rural populations across the world. It has been found to shrink sarcoma tumors in mice and to fight various forms of cancer. [19,20]


Chanterelles (Cantharellus spp.)- A worldwide favorite in various cuisines, chanterelles are rich in beta-carotene and B vitamins. The global popularity of this iconic mushroom has inspired scientific research. Chanterelles have been examined as an anti-inflammatory and for their wound healing ability. [21,22]


Get out there and see what bonds you can make with mushrooms. It’s reconnecting with our given rights and also setting a strong investment in the future of the planet. 


By Sarah Russo


*Rye N Flint is based in Hopland and can be found on Instagram @rye.n.flint or contacted directly at portalplants@gmail.com

Cover photo taken by Katy Able of Follow the Fox Designs.


Sources
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  2. Cammack, Walker. "Foraging for mushrooms and reconnecting with our food". TEDx Connecticut College, 2015. Link
  3. Avey, Tori. (2014)"Magical Mushrooms: The Allure of Edible Fungi" PBS Food. Link
  4. Aleksic, Ana. (2020). "Psilocybin: Safety, Side Effects & Types of Mushrooms". Self Hacked Link
  5. Jaeger, Kyle. (2019). "Activists Take Next Step In Campaign To Legalize Psychedelic Mushrooms In California". Marijuana Moment. Link
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  8. Wikipedia. "Dark matter". Accessed on 1/3/2020. Link
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  10.  Peay, Kabir. (2007). "How Plants Colonized the Land". Mykoweb. Link
  11. Stamets, Paul. (2015) "Mushrooms and Mycelium Help the Microbiome". Fungi Perfecti. Link 
  12. Linnekin, Baylen J. "Food Law Gone Wild: The Law of Foraging". Fordham Urban Law Journal, 2018. Link
  13. Wild Bosket. (2018). "How to properly harvest wild mushrooms: A forager’s guide". Wild Fungi 101. Link
  14.  Campbell, David. (2004). "The Candy Cap Complex". MykoWeb. Link
  15.  Kroll, David J. (2011). "Milk Thistle and Mushroom Poisoning". Science-Based Medicine. Link
  16.  Axe, Josh. (2018). "Turkey Tail Mushroom: The Disease-Fighting, Immune-Boosting Fungus". Dr. Axe.com. Link
  17.  Anderson, Patrick. (2018). "Synergy Mushrooms and CBD go together". The Bohemian. Link
  18.  Medical News Today. "What are the benefits of lion's mane mushrooms?" Accessed on 1/6/2020. Link
  19.  Rockland-Miller, Ari. (2012). "Hedgehog Mushroom: The Safer Chantrelle". The Mushroom Forager. Link
  20.  Peksen, Aysun, et all.  "Favourable Culture Conditions for Mycelial Growth of Hydnum Repandum, a Medicinal Mushroom". Afr J Tradit Complement Altern Med, 2013. Link
  21. Mushroom Appreciation. "Identification of Chanterelle Mushrooms". Accessed on 1/6/2020. Link
  22.  Nasiry, D., et all. "Anti-Inflammatory and Wound-Healing Potential of Golden Chanterelle Mushroom, Cantharellus cibarius (Agaricomycetes)." Int J Med Mushrooms, 2017. Link