Mushrooms are a peculiar fruit. Often thought to be a vegetable (and in the culinary world they are generally considered such), they are in fact not part of any plant family, nor do they fall into the bean or legume territory. They are not a meat, but texturally and taste-wise, it is meats that they are in fact closest to. Yet they are a fruit — just not in the traditional sense — and they do grow on trees. Only… the tree they grow on is underground, and is in fact a fungus known as mycelium. The mushroom is its “fruit”. Not only that, but these fruits were actually here before trees existed, and were often enormous, reaching up to eight meters high.
It gets weirder. Currently, the largest known organism on the planet is actually one of these ‘underground fungus trees’, occupying a whopping 965 hectares of soil in Oregon’s Blue Mountains (more about that here), there are more than 75 000 identified species — with researchers suspecting the total number to be in the millions — and there are even theories about certain spores (which is how they reproduce) possessing properties possibly conducive to space travel. (If you’ve ever ingested a mushroom with psychedelic properties, this might not seem so weird to you.)
And, of course, they also occupy certain interesting pockets of modern culture, such as cartoons and video games, being home to those magical little blue creatures in the woods of far away lands, and turning a particular puny little plumber into a larger and far more ‘super’ version of himself. (They may even have a somewhat hidden history deeply connected to Santa Claus and many of the rituals of Christmas in general.)
In reality, however, mycology — the study of mushrooms — is a burgeoning field. Much is still being discovered about the properties of these strange fungi that remain far more of a mystery to us than anything else. And the more we discover, the more the mystery seems to deepen. Take, for instance, the mushroom’s ability to act as therapist:
From The Washington Post:
…a mind-altering compound found in some 200 species of mushroom is already being explored as a potential treatment for depression and anxiety. People who consume these mushrooms, after “trips” that can be a bit scary and unpleasant, report feeling more optimistic, less self-centered, and even happier for months after the fact.
But why do these trips change the way people see the world? According to a study published today in Human Brain Mapping, the mushroom compounds could be unlocking brain states usually only experienced when we dream, changes in activity that could help unlock permanent shifts in perspective…[Dr. Robin Carhart-Harris, a post-doctoral researcher in neuropsychopharmacology at Imperial College London and co-author of the study, says:] “The way we treat psychological illnesses now is to dampen things. We dampen anxiety, dampen ones emotional range in the hope of curing depression, taking the sting out of what one feels.”
But some patients seem to benefit from having their emotions “unlocked” instead. “It would really suit the style of psychotherapy where we engage in a patient’s history and hang-ups,” Carhart-Harris said. “Instead of putting a bandage over the exposed wound, we’d be essentially loosening their minds—promoting a permanent change in outlook.”
Yet it goes even further. In this article from theconversation.com, Dr. Carhart himself discusses the implications of the “waking dream state” induced by these compounds for lessening the identification with the thinking mind, while simultaneously deepening the connection with our emotions, thus aiding in the type of ego-dissolution searched for in every true spiritual practice across the world:
This finding of a similar pattern to dream activity is intriguing. While the psychedelic state has been previously compared with dreaming, the opposite effect has been observed in the brain network from which we get our sense of “self” (called the default-mode network or ego-system). Put simply, while activity became “louder” in the emotion system, it became more disjointed and so “quieter” in the ego system.
Evidence from this study, and also preliminary data from an ongoing brain imaging study with LSD, appear to support the principle that the psychedelic state rests on disorganised activity in the ego system permitting disinhibited activity in the emotion system…
This finding was exciting because it synched with the idea that psychedelics cause temporary “ego dissolution”, in other words – diminishing one’s sense of having a firm and enduring personality. Our new research adds to our understanding about how this happens.
All of this is well and good, but don’t go running out to munch the nearest mushrooms you can find — you might just be signing your own death-warrant! Or at least a “deathly-ill” warrant. While many mushrooms are relatively benevolent, and others, like those just mentioned above, are entheogenic (spiritually assistive), some others are downright murderous– deviantly so.
The Death Cap is a genus of mushroom in the Amanita family (the most common representative of which is Amanita Muscaria, the red and white capped mushrooms that have ties to The Smurfs, Super Mario and Santa, as mentioned earlier) that exhibits many characteristics extremely similar to those of edible fungi — including a pleasant taste — yet are often fatal if consumed. They attack the liver and kidneys but have a lengthy delay in the onset of symptoms, often making it too late for treatment once it becomes apparent that poisoning has occurred. Along with their closely-related cousin The Destroying Angel, or Fool’s Mushroom, these sneaky assassins are responsible for the majority of human deaths due to mushroom poisoning.
Yet what is death to one form of life is nourishment to another. The Death Cap and the Destroying Angel, like so many other fungi, have an important, symbiotic relationship with certain trees, particularly hardwood and conifer species, aiding in the absorption and utilization of water and nutrients and enabling the health of the tree in general. In fact, the benefits of mushrooms to the planet as a whole are so many and so mind-blowing they include everything from the clean-up of man-made waste — including oil and radiation — to use in terraforming other planets.
From The Gullible Skeptic:
Besides the fact that mushrooms are crucial parts of our existence they show promising results in biotechnology that could possibly help in saving the world. Some of which are:
Environmental clean-up – Some mushroom strains have been proven to be effective at breaking down complex petrochemicals and even have the ability to absorb radiation from contaminated soils and water.
Forestry – Symbiotic Mycorrhizal fungi as discussed above could help speed up reforestation in woodlands by incorporating them in the germination/planting stage of the tree’s life.
Agriculture – Incorporating Mycorrhizal fungi into agriculture crops could help the plants access more nutrients and water that the plants roots cannot reach on their own thus increasing crop yields and growth rate without the need for chemical fertilizers.
Water filtration – Also known as mycofiltration, mushroom mycelium is comprised of small micro fibre like threads which can not only capture damaging particles in wastewater but effectively breakdown and utilize these pollutants turning them into a natural food for the fungi and stopping damaging chemicals from building up in our water supplies.
Pesticides – Paul Stamets isolated a strain of mushrooms that would effectively and naturally attract specific pests such as ants that would then take the fungi back to its nest were it would sporulate and kill off the entire colony.
Medicine – Mushrooms are considered sacred in ancient Chinese Medicine and they should be. Some mushroom species such as Reishi have a huge amount of antibiotic, antiviral and immune-boosting compounds that are a natural and alternative means of treating illness. They also are very low in calories but high in beneficial nutrients.
Famine relief – Mushrooms grow rapidly and can be grown on waste that is often thrown away into landfill. They could be a solution to feeding poor countries or disaster zones that need quick food and lots of it!
Space travel and terraforming – Considering mushrooms create soil and are tolerant to radiation, mushrooms could be grown on other planets to possibly terraform it and create a biosphere.
So there you have it! Next time you’re out walking in the woods and you notice a little mushroom cap poking out of the ground, you can reflect on how much more than that it actually is — and how much more it’s capable of!
For further reading, anything by mushroom guru Paul Stamets is recommended. He is one of the forerunning minds in the field of mycology today, and much of the knowledge in this article leads directly back to him. As an added bonus, here’s a Ted Talk from the man himself reflecting on the 6 ways mushrooms can save the world: