As a kid, I thought few things were stranger and more repulsive than fungi. They smelled weird, looked strange, were sometimes poisonous, grew on dead things, and — for some reason I could not fathom — were used as pizza toppings. Who wanted to eat such things when there were other perfectly good snacks to chomp on? In Ghostbusters, when Egon explained to Janine that his hobbies included collecting “spores, mold and fungus,” I chalked it up to his eccentric personality, and perhaps something about his job as a scientist. Now, as an adult, I realize that Egon actually had it all figured out.
Why collect mushrooms at all? Aren’t they dangerous? While it’s true that some mushrooms are poisonous and best avoided, fungi are an entire kingdom of creatures, right alongside plants, animals, and bacteria. And like plants and animals, mushrooms also offer a wide variety of possibilities, from the culinary, to the spiritual and medicinal. Many of them offer incredible health benefits which are now being investigated by doctors and mycologists like Paul Stamets. But these benefits aren’t being discovered for the first time— they have been touted by indigenous cultures around the globe for centuries.
Chaga, a black fungus that lives as a parasite on birch trees, has historically been brewed as a tea or coffee-like beverage, and may boost immunity, prevent infection, and help fight cancer. It has long been used by peoples in Siberia and China for its potent effects. Turkey tail, a colorful mushroom found across the globe, has been used in traditional Chinese medicine and Native American herbalism for its many benefits, including helping boost the immune system. The fly agaric, or red and white Mario mushroom, is mildly poisonous but also used as an entheogen by shamans to enter trance-like states and journey to the spirit world.
On the more culinary end, Lion’s mane mushrooms taste a bit like crab when cooked, but may also help prevent dementia, repair nervous system damage, and aid in recovery from anxiety and depression. It was also traditionally used by Buddhist monks to boost brain power. Chicken of the woods, a vibrant orange mushroom, is full of anti-oxidants and, well, tastes like chicken!
There are also the well-known psilocybin mushrooms which are known for their psychedelic effects, vision inducing properties, and therapeutic benefits. Recent studies have indicated that psilocybin mushrooms appear to fight depression as well as or better than traditional prescription medications. Such mushrooms have also been used by indigenous peoples in the Americas as part of their spiritual practices.
While some mushrooms are easy to find and identify like chicken of the woods or dryad’s saddle (shown above), others are tricker or have dangerous lookalikes — in particular the common white mushrooms sometimes found on lawns, and also the psychedelic mushrooms. So why collect them, and why risk getting sick? Is it worth it? I think so, and here’s why:
- Mushrooms have many health benefits and many of the edible and medicinal species are easy to pick out and hard to mix up with others. You can start with the easy varieties and work from there if you want to learn more.
- Mycelium (fungal networks) stores carbon and are also good for forests and the broader environment. These underground fungal webs give birth to mushrooms and are also interesting in its own right, in some cases representing the biggest organism on Earth. Thankfully, studies have shown that picking the mushroom doesn’t damage their mycelium long-term, and you may actually spread the mushroom’s spores which allow them to reproduce.
- Mushroom hunting gets us out into nature and in tune with our local environment. Many of us want to lose a little extra weight, or just get in better shape. Walking, and hiking are an easy way to keep our metabolisms up, and adding mushroom hunting to the mix adds a sense of adventure and purpose to these excursions. Plus, you learn about local species that grow in your environment. In my case, this has also meant learning about local trees and other plants that the mushrooms grow from.
- There are millions of species, with new ones being discovered all the time. Mushrooms come in a huge variety of shapes, colors, and flavors, and some, like the vomit-inducing jack-o-lanterns even glow in the dark. You won’t ever really run out of new ones to look for.
- You can grow your own and share with friends. Believe it or not, mushroom kits are now available on Amazon and via other online stores, with a variety of wonderful species available for growing. Lion’s mane and oyster mushrooms, for example, are easy to grow and you can share recipes or medicinal teas with friends if they’re interesting in being one of your test subjects (again, always make sure you can ID anything you eat or share!). You can also collect spores from wild mushrooms and spread them on substrate at home, to cultivate them in your garden.
- It’s fun. Although our childhood selves might have balked at the idea of spending a day looking for unusual species of fungus, as adults it’s a great way to get out of the house or break our routine.
So why not give them another try? Maybe mushroom pizza still won’t be your thing, but it could be that frying lion’s mane yields more delicious results.
Next time you’re in the woods, see if you spot anything weird growing, and maybe take a picture to share with friends or to identity the species on of the many mushroom identification apps. You might even get addicted, but in the best of ways.