Getting to know mushrooms can be as mind expanding as actually ingesting the legendary psilocybin mushroom. Mushrooms have a strange beauty; in some cultures they are sacred. They can inspire awe; they are mysterious, appearing silently and seemingly from nowhere. Paul Stamets, mycologist, comments, “. . . rains fell and mushrooms magically sprang forth, wilted in the sun, rotted, and vanished without a trace.” It is easy to believe that they originate in the land of the fairies, that they are creatures from Alice in Wonderland where nothing is as it seems to be. In ancient fables, fanciful toadstools, even though poisonous, have given a fairytale aura to mushrooms – they are home to elves, sprites and, of course, fairies.
Mushrooms come in strange and diverse shapes, sizes, and forms; and are usually found in delightful, dwarfish communities some spreading over acres of ground and some, such as turkey tails, will completely encircle and colonize tree trunks, becoming an exquisite form of living art. Some have dome shaped tops resembling church cupolas, others present flat tops large enough to spread a feast on. For instance, Noble Polypores can be almost 5’ across and weigh more than 300lbs. You can find mushrooms looking like they were made just for kids – red button tops covered with white polka dots with a stark white stem stretching into the ground (Fly Agaric which are poisonous) and mushrooms that sport white cascading spines that resemble wigs of hair (Hericium Erinaceus).
Do you know how important mushrooms are to the health of Nature? They are a keystone species on which many other aspects of the biosphere depend. These awesome entities are responsible for holding entire habitats together. Mycelium, which Stamets considers the Internet of Nature, is what mushrooms spring from. This intricate mycelium network forms a fibrous mat, just under the surface of the ground, which not only holds everything together, but also creates an astounding communication system that gives every plant access to every other plant within, sometimes, thousands of acres. Trees and plants use the mycelium internet system to, among other things, send nutrients and healing chemicals to other trees or plants that are in need.
According to Stamets, “The soil that fungi produce sustain, ultimately, all life,” and, according to some, mushroom compost is one of the best soil conditioners you can get for your garden. Amazingly, mushrooms, such funky creations, can remediate, or heal, entire poisoned areas of land – brownfields – land areas that are saturated with toxic chemicals. At the end of the remediation process, and of the growth and maturation of these mushrooms, neither the brownfield nor the mushroom are any longer toxic. They have both been purified — or transformed. Mushrooms are also used in water purification processes.
In addition to their essential role in Nature, mushrooms have multitudes of prized medicinal and culinary properties that offer multiple benefits for the health of humans. Grocery stores have picked up on this and are expanding their repertoire of edible mushrooms. Mushrooms are valued food products — some truffles sell for more than $500/lb. Toadstools themselves may have culinary and medicinal properties but most people don’t have sophisticated enough knowledge to know how to use them.
Mother Nature holds a fantasia of wealth in the kingdom of mushrooms that benefits all sentient beings. Expand your mind; explore the world of mushrooms. You might just find yourself in a startlingly unique and enchanted realm.