Perhaps you're here as a curious novice, an intrepid seeker, or maybe just as an innocent bystander. Regardless of which, something has brought us together here... so let us talk about mushrooms. In this post, you will find a little bit of background info to get us familiar with the fungi kingdom, plus a bit of mushroom history, and we'll explain what we mean when we differentiate between gourmet, medicinal, and psychedelic mushrooms.
The fungi kingdom is made of mushrooms, yeasts, molds, and all kinds of gooey stuff. At one time considered to be plants, it wasn't until 1969 that they were placed in their own kingdom, and it turns out that genetically they are more closely related to animals than plants, in fact, humans share nearly 50% of their DNA with mushrooms. Fungi were some of the first complex organisms to evolve on land. In much earlier chapters of evolution, fungi diverged from plants an estimated 1.5 billion years ago, and then split from animals a few million years later.
One of the main differences between a plant and a fungus is that plants get their energy from the sun and water. Organisms that can do this are known as autotrophs because they are essentially able to produce their own food. Fungi, on the other hand, are not capable of photosynthesis and so they get their energy by decomposing organic matter. Organisms that do this are known as heterotrophs, and animals are also in this category, but the way animals and fungi actually eat their food is very different. Animals are able to physically ingest their food because they have stomachs in their bodies and a digestive system. Fungi lack stomachs, so they must digest their food externally by releasing enzymes (and other secondary metabolites, more on this later) that help break down matter and absorb nutrients.
This is how fungi play a fundamental role in nature, acting as nature's recyclers as they break down matter and then redistribute minerals and nutrients back into the ground to be reused as the raw materials for another cycle of death and rebirth. If fungi didn't do this, the planet would be overflowing with rotten trees, and decaying organic matter. To quote the great Paul Stamets, "fungi are the interface organisms between life and death".
Today many things are possible thanks to the fungi kingdom. We can make penicillin and other antibiotics by growing and treating certain molds. Yeast is used to aid the process of fermentation in making beer, bread, and certain cheeses. Researchers are currently experimenting with a number of diverse fungi species to solve some of the biggest crises we face today, whether they are environmental, medical, or existential. Meanwhile, historians, anthropologists, and ethnobotanists worldwide have argued that some of the most visionary art, music, and literature throughout history would not exist without the influence of magic mushrooms.
Of all the fungi species out there (which are estimated in the millions), by far the most popular are the basidiomycete mushrooms. Through the ages mushrooms have occupied a special place in our imagination, at times revered and often feared. Some cultures have embraced them as food and medicine while others have kept a safer distance. And you can find references to mushrooms in some really interesting places throughout the history of civilizations: particularly in areas like mythology & folklore, shamanism & sorcery, and spirituality & religion.
To fully understand and appreciate this, we must think about the enigma it surely was for our ancestors, that a mushroom could offer nourishment, healing, transcendent experiences, or death. And for most of our history as a species, we simply didn't know which one it might be. So this has had a profound effect on our collective psyche and has created a mystical and notorious aura that can be hard to overcome.
Mushrooms first evolved on Earth an estimated 700 million years ago. For a while not much happened, plants were just beginning to grow and animals had not yet left the sea to live on land. For some time, around 450 million years ago, a fungal species known as Prototaxites emerged. These structures could grow up to 30 feet high, making them the biggest organisms on land at the time. Millions of years later, the planet went through two mass extinction events and the abundance of dead organic matter made quite a feast for the saprotrophic fungi (those that feed off decaying matter).
Mushrooms can be very diverse and complex in their morphologies. We tend to think of the mushroom as the whole organism, but in reality, the mushroom is just the fruiting body and the rest of the organism is located underground, invisible to us. The vast underground network of fungal roots is called mycelium, and these threads form dense networks that exchange nutrients and information throughout the forest. Most basidiomycete fungi will form mushrooms that have a cap and a stem, and depending on the type of mushroom, the underside of the cap will either have gills, tubes, or pores. The spores of the mushroom are equivalent to the seeds of a plant because they are able to form a new organism, although spores are much smaller and they can travel through the air for long distances.
When talking about mushrooms, we use a lot of terms that are not always obvious, and for the interested learner who is yet unversed and unfamiliar with these terms, it can get confusing pretty quickly. So, let's remember that this is just a basic overview, and these are just meant to be useful terms & definitions, and in no way does this represent the official scientific consensus on what categories we should be using and what names we should be calling them. So what exactly do we mean by gourmet, medicinal, and psychedelic mushrooms?
Gourmet mushrooms are those edible mushrooms that are especially prized for their culinary and nutritional applications. Chefs commonly use mushrooms for their unique range of textures and flavors. As far as superfoods go, these mushrooms also have some great game. They're full of vitamins and minerals so they support a healthy diet and help lower cholesterol - delicious and nutritious! You can get really creative when cooking these mushrooms; whether in a pasta, in a soup, an omelet, a burger or whatever, their complex earthy flavors will elevate any dish. Some gourmet mushrooms cannot be cultivated and must be foraged from the wild, so the availability can be scarce and the price can be eye-popping (for example; morels, chanterelles and of course truffles).
Medicinal mushrooms are those whose health benefits go above and beyond the standards of a nutritious food. Medicinal mushrooms may or may not be considered gourmet. For example, the Lion's Mane mushroom is both a gourmet and a medicinal mushroom, but the Reishi is only considered medicinal and not gourmet because of its unappealing texture & flavor. Medicinal mushrooms are often consumed in extract form, and thus sometimes could enter into a gray area where the line gets blurred between food and medicine.
Psychedelic mushrooms are those mushrooms which contain psychoactive compounds. Psilocybin is usually the most prevalent and studied psychoactive compound within these mushrooms, although they can contain combinations of up to a dozen or more additional psychoactive alkaloids - naturally occurring compounds known to have psychoactive effects. These mushrooms seem to operate on a higher plane of reality because their effects are in the realm of experience or consciousness - often creating deeply meaningful and life-changing mystical experiences for the person taking them. When used responsibly, these mushrooms have shown tremendous potential in dealing with mental health issues such as trauma, depression, PTSD, and addiction disorders.
And then of course, you also have the category of toxic mushrooms, which can deliver you to death in grueling agony, and considering the estimated number of mushrooms that we haven't even identified or fully studied yet, there’s a chance many species won’t fit neatly or discretely into the aforementioned categories.
So why are mushrooms having their moment? The fact is, the mushroom kingdom has long been an understudied and underappreciated sector of the natural world, and western science is barely making significant progress to understanding its many intricacies and nuances. As we are seeing, the fungi kingdom and mushrooms branch and myceliate into just about every science and industry imaginable - culinary arts and nutrition, pharmaceuticals, biotechnology, ecology and sustainable agriculture, industrial applications (like textiles and construction materials), and bioremediation (replacing plastic packaging or degrading pollution). Now more than ever, we need creative solutions that align with natural systems using an integral approach, and mushrooms have a way of reminding us of the interconnected, genre-defying, boundary-dissolving and functionally integrated nature of all things in life.