When Alice first discovers the mushroom in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it looks perfectly ordinary—until she sees what’s sitting on it: a large blue caterpillar smoking a hookah. The caterpillar, an impatient sort, grills a confused Alice on who she is and what she’s doing before telling her that eating from one side of his mushroom will cause her to grow and eating from the other will cause her to shrink (he refrains from clarifying which side is which). Alice grabs a handful of both, and her first bite diminishes her down toward the ground. The corrective bite sends her head soaring above the treetops, her neck so long that a nearby pigeon mistakes her for a serpent.
Alice’s experience encapsulates the weird position that mushrooms take up in our psyche: the way they occupy some borderland between the prosaic and the uncanny. They can be found in the aisles of any grocery store—rubbery white buttons tamed by plastic wrap. They’re ubiquitous in children’s books, especially fairy tales—which might be where they start to spill over into the otherworldly, since many of those illustrations depict the Amanita muscaria, a red mushroom with white spots, prized by Siberian shamans for its powerful hallucinogenic properties (it’s also highly toxic). Things only get wilder from there.
Though we typically associate mushrooms with a classic toadstool silhouette, they come in all kinds of fantastical shapes and colours. Take, for example, the jack-o’-lantern, a poisonous orange variety that glows green in the dark. There are mushrooms whose names wouldn’t sound out of place at a punk show, like witches’ butter, wolf-fart puffball, bleeding tooth, and amethyst deceiver. Then, of course, there’s the fact that fungi are a potent symbol of death, not just because eating the wrong type might kill you but also because they literally feed off decay. Most fungi survive by decomposing material around them—not only feeding themselves in the process but clearing away lifeless organic material so that more things can grow. Because of that, mushrooms could also be seen as symbols of rebirth, creating space for new life by doing away with the dead.
Maybe that sense of renewal is part of why mushrooms are having a bona fide moment right now, one that straddles several wildly different sectors. In late 2021, the New York Times predicted that mushrooms would be the 2022 ingredient of the year, which makes sense given that the global market for edible fungi rose to $45.3 billion (US) in 2020 and is projected to reach $62.2 billion (US) this year. Meanwhile, advancing technology means we’re finding more applications for fungi, from the seemingly frivolous (high fashion “mushroom leather”) to the potentially groundbreaking (fungus that feeds off radiation and might be used to clean up nuclear waste or protect astronauts in space). In medicine, more and more studies are being done on the use of psilocybin to treat depression, anxiety, and even substance use disorder. Mushrooms are also becoming increasingly popular as a supplement, touting benefits like improved immunity, cognitive function, and energy.
When I first had the idea to write about mushrooms, I thought it would be a light trend piece—something like “mushrooms are so hot right now, how interesting!” But what started out as general journalistic curiosity sent me down a trail of increasingly amazing facts, one that has led me to question so many things I thought I knew about the natural world and our place in it—an identity crisis similar to the one Alice experiences as she journeys through Wonderland. It’s clear that mycologists have only just begun their journey down the rabbit hole, and the applications for mushrooms are seemingly endless. And it seems that the more we learn about fungi, the more we learn about our own values and connections.
Last year, when Deb Kelly led me through her Yarker, Ontario, mushroom farm, the Fungi Connection, I couldn’t decide whether it reminded me more of an industrial warehouse or some sci-fi laboratory. Dominating the entryway was a homemade sterilization unit, a hulking metal thing that blasted steam through the bags of hardwood sawdust in which the mushrooms would grow. From there, we passed into a room with hospital-grade HEPA filters, where the shelves were lined with dozens of petri dishes, each containing a bit of mushroom culture that was grown in a test tube. This was where the cultures would be mixed with sterilized grain in order to form the mycelium, which is the root-like structure out of which mushrooms develop, and everything had to be as clean as possible. Even the tiniest contaminant could ruin an entire batch.
Once the grain was colonized by the mycelium, it could be added to the sawdust bags—these mushrooms are all wood decomposers, so that will be their food—and then moved to the incubation room, a warm, dim purgatory that it must journey through before its final stop: the fruiting room.
“This is the part that a lot of people get most excited about,” Kelly told me as she opened the door. I could see why. In this light-, humidity-, and temperature-controlled space, designed to mimic the conditions of the forest floor, row upon row of sawdust bags burst with fantastical shapes: oyster mushrooms in shades of beige, eerie indigo sprout-like clusters of tiny flying saucers, and lion’s mane mushrooms frothing out of their containers with long, white spines that looked like shaggy hair.
It’s hard to describe the surreal feeling of the fruiting room—it was a bit like stepping into another world. It also felt like looking into the future, which, in a way, it just might be.
When Kelly and her husband, Darren, founded the Fungi Connection in 2017 at a farm they were renting on Wolfe Island, they thought it would take them at least five years to build some kind of following. To their surprise, they were soon supplying mushrooms to restaurants across Eastern Ontario and selling their goods at several local fine food shops and farmers’ markets. In the years since, they’ve had to move twice to larger digs thanks to skyrocketing demand—though in the months since I visited, they’ve decided to sell their large farm and scale back to a smaller homestead.
One of the Fungi Connection’s most popular products has been a kit that allows people to cultivate their own mushrooms at home. As it turns out, you don’t need a lot of space or fancy equipment to grow mushrooms. In fact, the use of old factories and warehouses as urban mushroom farms is on the rise. Blanc de Gris in Montreal, one example of this model, has put an extra eco-friendly spin on the idea by using residual grain from local beer production as part of its cultivation.
When it comes to food, mushrooms have many benefits in an age of climate change. They’re chock-full of nutrients and make an appealing meat substitute. (Despite being a staple in many vegetarian diets, mushrooms aren’t vegetables; they share more genetic traits with animals and belong to their own separate biological kingdom.) Compared to other crops, they require fewer growing materials, water, and energy while also taking up a fraction of the square footage. Because they don’t need significant access to land and are relatively inexpensive, easy, and quick to cultivate, mushrooms could also potentially help address food insecurity, particularly in urban environments.
The Kellys cultivate a number of varieties, including shiitake, black king, reishi, chestnut, the aforementioned lion’s mane, and four variants of oyster mushrooms: blue, pink, golden, and white. Almost all of these could be used to make satisfying meatless stir fries, pasta sauces, gravies, soups, or stews. (I have a great recipe somewhere for mushroom bourguignon.) Some mushrooms, though, are able to mimic the texture and flavour of actual meat. Lion’s mane, for example, is a great replacement for crabmeat, lobster, and some types of fish; it works well in “lobster” rolls and vegetarian gumbo. Then there’s the variety Laetiporus, which some people call “chicken of the woods.” As its nickname suggests, Laetiporus makes an incredible chicken substitute, whether you bread it and deep-fry it or turn it into a simple soup. Then there’s mycoprotein, which is a meat substitute made out of protein derived from fungi. You can find mycoprotein products in supermarkets under the brand name Quorn. Personally, though, my favourite mushroom dishes are those where the mushroom isn’t trying to be anything other than its own delicious self.
As I was leaving the Fungi Connection, Deb handed me a paper bag filled with oyster and lion’s mane mushrooms. I felt like I’d won the lottery. I used the oyster ones to make a beautifully creamy risotto, and on Kelly’s recommendation, I decided to try my hand at lion’s mane “crab cakes.” I made them for my mother and served them with a fancy lemon aioli. Both of us thought they tasted just like real crab cakes.
One of the most fascinating recent innovations in the world of fungi is so-called vegan mushroom leather (which is actually made from mycelium). This hot new trend in luxury apparel has designers like Hermès and Stella McCartney incorporating it into their products, and it could potentially upend fashion both high and low.
Artist Philip Ross first learned about reishi mushrooms when he worked as a hospice caregiver in San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic; interested in their immune-boosting properties, he began growing them for medicinal use. He soon started using them in his sculptures and eventually began experimenting with materials made from the organism’s mycelium. After fielding interest from multiple companies about the technology he was developing, Ross and long-time artistic collaborator Sophia Wang founded MycoWorks in order to commercialize it and wound up focusing on creating a plant-based leather alternative. Designers say it’s indistinguishable from the real thing.
Mushroom leather has many things working in its favour, the biggest one being that it’s cruelty free. It’s also more eco-friendly than both leather and the majority of leather alternatives: mushrooms don’t come close to stressing the environment the way that rearing cattle and other animals does, the tanning process doesn’t use chromium (a pollutant historically used to tan hides), and it’s not made from plastic, unlike “pleather” (leather-like products made from polyurethane or polyvinyl chloride). Mushroom leather can also be combined with other fibres, like cotton, and customized to a much higher degree than real leather.
The only drawback is the price. In an interview with the New York Times in late 2022, Ross would not put an exact number to the cost of his product, but he did say that it was comparable to that of exotic hides. There’s a reason that mushroom leather lies (at least so far) firmly within the domain of luxury apparel: no one else can afford to work with it. But other companies are quickly developing their own mushroom leather technologies, and MycoWorks is ever growing. It’s possible to imagine a future where mushroom leather is mainstream.
Mushrooms might currently be associated with wealth and health, but they haven’t always been viewed so positively in the Western world. Just a few hundred years ago, Europeans had a much darker take on them.
“Mushrooms were always about the night side of nature,” says Mike Jay, author of Psychonauts: Drugs and the Making of the Modern Mind, about historical Western attitudes toward psychedelic plants and organisms. In his native Britain, they are associated with fairy rings, naturally occurring circles of mushrooms that spring up in forests or meadows. These were said to be made by fairies, mischievous and spiteful little imps, to dance in.
A fairy ring was a dangerous place, and an errant human who stumbled into one might find themself whisked away to fairyland—or worse. Of course, transportation to another world is exactly what some people hope to get from ingesting certain mushrooms.
The term “magic mushroom” was coined in 1957 by Life magazine. In that issue, R. Gordon Wasson, a vice president at J. P. Morgan, detailed his participation in a Mazatec mushroom ritual. Wasson, whose Russian American wife and co-author, Valentina, had first interested him in mushrooms during their honeymoon, claimed to be the pioneering Westerner to have undergone such a ceremony; in fact, he had lied his way into it by claiming to the woman conducting it, a curandera named María Sabina, that he was looking for information about his son. Wasson also reneged on his promise not to publicize identifying information about Sabina, something that had devastating consequences for her. The essay, however, proved to be an enormous sensation, one that Wasson followed up on by collecting and identifying various species of psilocybin mushrooms and publishing about them. If Timothy Leary and Ram Dass were the godfathers of the psychedelic ’60s, then Wasson might be a close third.
Few people understand the impact of Wasson’s work more than Ron Shore, a sort of Renaissance mushroom man from Kingston, Ontario. I first contacted him because he owned a brewery (since sold) that created a beer containing chaga mushrooms, which have been said to lower inflammation and prevent cancer and are often used in alternative medicine and supplements. I was interested in what seemed like yet another strange new use for fungi. As it turned out, I got much more than I’d bargained for: Shore was also involved in the founding of the Kingston Psychedelic Society and recently completed a PhD in the clinical application of psilocybin mushrooms. (The beer, by the way, was delicious.)
“There’s a bit of a trickster element to mushrooms, a shadow side, an underground intelligence,” says Shore, who works as a research scientist under Jane Philpott at Queen’s University. He’s happy to talk about the neuroscience of psilocybin-assisted therapy, the reviews he’s conducted, the papers he’s publishing. This form of psychotherapy is still relatively new, but studies have shown it could be very effective in treating issues like depression, end-of-life anxiety, and substance use disorders. While the sale of psilocybin mushrooms is still illegal in Canada, Health Canada has authorized the use of psilocybin in psychedelic-assisted therapy through its Special Access Program. It’s still early days when it comes to any kind of treatment involving psychedelics, but initial results seem promising.
Shore’s a bona fide scientist, but his interest comes across as more mystical than academic. He views mushrooms as intelligent beings, which accords with the research biologist Merlin Sheldrake did for his hit book Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures. It turns out that networks of mycelium, which can stretch for miles underground, in some ways resemble brains. They’re able to transmit information, respond to their environment, and adapt to change in a way that science is only just beginning to understand.
“The brain’s architecture is exactly like the way mycelium grows,” Shore tells me. “It’s exactly the same branching network patterns. We’re all so used to this world that’s somehow a duality between body and spirit and all this, but in the real world, everything’s so connected. We don’t even know where one species starts and another ends, or where one tree starts and another ends, or where a mushroom starts and a tree ends.”
Shore often speaks in these kinds of terms: about how fungi connect to themselves and the wider natural world, but also how they can help people connect to themselves or those around them. Kelly, who calls herself a mushroom evangelist, does the same, adding that the more she learns about fungi, the more she feels there’s a spiritual component to her work. She’s certainly not the only mushroom enthusiast to speak about them with a kind of holy awe.
Jay feels a similar sense of wonder about fungi and refers to their current moment as a point of “infinite possibility.” But he also worries that there is a sort of uncritical championing happening around them—a sense that people might be overpromising what they can deliver based on science that is really only just starting to understand how it exists in the world and what it can do. That feels like a fair assessment: Could anything really live up to the current mushroom hype? We want so badly to discover a silver bullet that will solve all of our problems—climate change, food insecurity, mental and physical illness—and we tend to be quick to discard ideas if they don’t work out exactly the way we want them to.
Still, Jay feels encouraged by the fact that researchers could seize the “mushroom cheerleading” opportunity to create long-term plans, telling me he hopes it will lead to more funding and research into the effects on the human mind.
When most people think about the mushroom that Alice finds in Wonderland, they’ll probably remember its more fantastical elements: the fact that it’s the seat of a talking, smoking caterpillar or the way it causes Alice’s rapid changes in size. What they might not remember is that, by this point in the narrative, Alice has already grown and shrunk uncontrollably, which is why she’s on eye level with the caterpillar to begin with. Alice eats the mushroom to try to restore herself to her regular size—which, after some trial and error, she manages to do. She holds on to pieces of the mushroom as she moves on, using them as tools to help her navigate the strange new world.
With a little luck and a lot of investment, maybe fungi can do the same for us.