There’s more than one reason why they’re called magic. Although we won’t be discussing “magic mushrooms” in this post, the mushroom kingdom is filled with many other fascinating organisms to learn about. (Though there is plenty to learn about psychedelic mushrooms and several ongoing studies investigating the potential benefits of psilocybin that warrant being looked into such as relieving "existential distress" in cancer patients, aiding in breaking addictions to cigarettes, alcohol, and cocaine, and bring relief to people struggling with depression. This is not to mention the benefits provided to those interested in spiritual exploration and personal growth.) Exploring the world of mushrooms is an inspiring adventure that takes us outside the plant and animal world. Besides being a tasty addition to our diet, mushrooms provide a slew of benefits to our bodies, remediate toxins in our environment, and so much more.
For many of us, we are first introduced to mushrooms as kids. They might have been those weird-looking things you picked out of the green bean casserole or those things that arrived on pizza along with pepperoni you happily gobbled up. Mushrooms are versatile to cook with and uniquely tasty. Part of the appeal of cooking with mushrooms is the umami flavor they provide which is absent in many other foods. Umami is one of the five basic tastes and is often described as sweetly savory and is prevalent in foods like meaty broths, Parmesan cheese, and fermented products like miso. With the growing prevalence of mushroom seasonings that highlight mushrooms’ umami characteristics, imbuing food with mushrooms’ unique flavors is becoming easier and easier to do.
Another appeal of cooking with mushrooms is the wide variety of flavors and textures from species to species of mushrooms. Lobster mushroom tastes and has the mouthfeel of, well lobster. The seafood-flavored fungi have a bright orange color that parallels the color of a lobster shell once it's been cooked. The sliced wide stems of king oyster or trumpet mushrooms stand-in for a different sea creature in many vegan and vegetarian "scallop" recipes. Lion's mane mushrooms having both a similar taste and texture to crab is used in many “crab cake” recipes. Oyster mushrooms lend their stringy texture and somewhat nuanced taste to many "fried chicken" recipes.
While Hippocrates never actually said, “Let food by thy medicine, and medicine be thy food”, it’s a nice notion, especially given the proliferation of processed foods and pills for every ill. Besides taking the title of the best non-animal source of Vitamin D, mushrooms offer a variety of other health benefits.
Although mushrooms are enjoying a moment in the spotlight and are somewhat of a trendy item, historically mushrooms have been used in a variety of healing traditions including Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Kanpō medicine, or Traditional Japanese Medicine for centuries. In TCM, mushrooms are regarded as a symbol of longevity and have been used to support the immune system, bolster energy and stamina, aid digestion, support the cardiovascular system, and regulate blood pressure. Recently, studies into the benefits of some traditionally used mushrooms have produced results affirming the healing and health-supporting properties of many fungi.
Additionally, mushrooms are sustainability superstars. The unique structure of fungi lends itself to be used in a variety of ways. Mushrooms are composed of an underground part, which can be thought of as the roots of mushrooms, and an aboveground, fruiting body that is what most of us think of when we think of mushrooms. The underground part of the mushroom, mycelium, is a collection of fibers called hyphae, that allow the organism to absorb their food from the environment in which they live. Mycelium can grow into a network of underground webs, waiting dormant for many seasons until a hypha makes its way through the earth or wood or plant matter until it reaches the surface, sprouting the beginnings of the fruiting body of the fungi.
New York-based biodesigner Danielle Trofe, manufactures or more aptly grows, light pendants from mycelium. Trofe's MushLume Lighting Collection utilizes hemp (a sustainable crop in its own right) as a surface for the mycelium to grow on and through. In a matter of days, the mycelium grows into a thick network of hyphae throughout the hemp, solidifying into a solid structure within custom lampshade molds. Once the mycelium has fully matured, the lampshades are taken out of the molds, dried, and heated, creating a stylish 100% biodegradable product. The same process has been used to grow mycelium packaging to replace Styrofoam, and bricks which offer excellent opportunities for upcycling agricultural waste into a cost-effective, sustainable, and biodegradable material for construction.
Similar to Trofe's use of mycelium to create sustainable home goods, Mylo a high-quality alternative to animal and synthetic-based leather, has been developed by scientists and engineers at Bolt Threads. The process begins with mycelium cells grown on beds of sawdust and other organic material. Billions of cells grow to form an interconnected 3D network that is processed, tanned, and dyed to make Mylo. Mylo is already being used in place of leather in select products from mainstream brands like Adidas and Lululemon, to luxury brands like Stella McCartney, speaking to the feasibility of using sustainable mushroom leathers.
One of the most interesting, if not pressing, uses for mushrooms is their potential role in bioremediation. Mycoremediation, a form of bioremediation, is the process of using fungi to degrade or sequester contaminants in the environment. As Paul Stamets states, “Fungi are the grand recyclers of the planet and the vanguard species in habitat restoration.” Oil spills in the Amazon, contaminated water in Washington’s Spokane River, contaminated soil in New Zealand, and more have benefited from the use of fungi that are tolerant to high concentrations of pollutants. Research even suggests mushrooms can convert pesticides and herbicides to more innocuous compounds, remove heavy metals from brownfield sites, and break down plastic.
In 2017, wildfires across Northern California left behind a trail of dangerous ash, incinerated hazardous household waste and building materials, charred paint, pesticides, cleaning products, electronics, and more. A range of pollutants including arsenic, asbestos, and lead seeped into the soil, causing fear of runoff from the toxic materials. In the aftermath of the fires, workers removed much of the toxic debris and turned to mushrooms to help remove the remainder. The Fire Remediation Action Coalition placed more than 40 miles of straw-filled tubes inoculated with oyster mushrooms around parking lots and along roads and hillsides. The tubes would provide makeshift channels, diverting runoff from sensitive waterways and the enzymes in mushrooms would work to break down pollutants.
As you can there’s a lot to learn about our fungi friends and the world of mushrooms is ripe for research. If you are interested in learning more about mushrooms these are great resources.
Book - Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our book on mycology by English biologist Merlin Sheldrake.
Book - How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence by author Michael Pollan, best known for his books about food and is the author of the best-sellers "The Omnivore's Dilemma" and "The Botany Of Desire."
Book - Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms by Eugenia Bone