Mushrooms are everywhere you look right now.
There's mushroom life drawing and mushroom-focused supper clubs; a growing fetish for 18th century mushroom illustrations; mushroom adaptogenic teas, mushroom skincare and fashionable foraging. There is currently even a free exhibition at Somerset House dedicated to fungi-inspired art and design, which culminates in a shop full of mushroom paraphernalia and the opportunity to enjoy a mini mushroom facial from skincare brand Origins. Mushroom fever doesn’t stop there; the psychedelic properties of some species are a legitimate area of interest for scientists working out how to treat a range of mental health issues.
The thing is, mushrooms have always been here and people have always been fascinated by them. We share an evolutionary history; in fact, scientists say mushrooms have more DNA in common with humans than with plants. Without fungi there would be no trees (they can’t grow without them) and no antibiotics. Before restaurants worked out there was more to feeding non-meat-eaters than marinating a portobello, no mushrooms would have meant no 'veggie' burgers, too.
The history of humankind is dramatically interwoven with the history of mushrooms and the West is finally waking up to them, thanks to the looming climate crisis and unstoppable rise of the wellness industry. 2020 is on its way to being the year we catch up with the rest of the world's fondness for fungi.
In 1957, Robert Gordon Wasson published an article in Life magazine in the US titled "Seeking The Magic Mushroom". In it, the former banker chronicles his visits to a remote Mexican village where he first encountered the ritual of consuming mushrooms for their psychedelic effects. While Wasson was hardly the first to discover these effects, and the whole piece is a particularly '50s example of tone-deaf cultural tourism, he is credited with bringing the idea of mushrooms as more than just a vegetable to the minds of the Western world. It led Wasson to write his book, Mushrooms, Russia and History, where he described how the world as he sees it falls into two distinct cultures: mycophobic (mushroom phobic) and mycophilic (mushroom loving).
In the UK we live in a mycophobic culture. This is not to say that we avoid mushrooms at all costs: we happily eat the agaricus genus (the common button mushroom, of which white, brown, cremini and portobello are all forms) but beyond certain contexts, most mushrooms have retained an aura of mystery and even disgust. This is diametrically opposed to the reverence for mushrooms in mycophilic cultures like Russia and plenty of countries throughout Asia, where people not only consume a much wider variety of mushrooms and see them as medicinally important, but hunt them as a national sport and even use them to adorn Christmas trees.
According to Francesca Gavin, the curator of the Somerset House exhibition, mushrooms have always been seen as "something witchy, something darker, something that’s about decay." She points to the scene in Alice's Adventures In Wonderland (published in 1865) where Alice comes across a caterpillar atop a giant mushroom as a "gateway moment" for mushrooms beginning to be seen as something strange but friendly in our society, reflecting the rise of amateur botany which started in the 18th century.
Francesca believes it is an attempt to fix our technology-driven dissociation from the natural world – see "forest bathing" and the millennial houseplant obsession – that's driving us to look at mushrooms now. "I think mushrooms are a really fun, weird, strange reminder of a) how interesting nature is but also b) how [it] will always force [itself] back into the culture... Your brain [is] essentially connected to it."
Our impulse to re-engage with the natural world around us is both aesthetically nostalgic (as with the botanist illustrations) and forward-thinking as urgency grows to tackle the impending climate crisis. "We're so conscious of the disaster we're making of the world [that] I think mushrooms are being looked at almost as a kind of saviour, or a metaphor," Francesca tells me. "Mushrooms cover both the poetic and the practical."
Some of the pieces in the exhibition focus on the possibility that can be found in mushrooms in the face of environmental disaster. Artist Jae Rhim Lee, for instance, has created a decomposable mushroom burial suit, designed to combat the ecological impact of burying someone. On a less sombre note, Kristel Peters explores the possibility of using mycelium to create sustainable shoes.
Mycelium is the main part of the mushroom organism (think of the actual mushroom like an apple fruiting off a tree) and is a white thready network of filaments beneath the forest floor. It’s sometimes called the Wood Wide Web and is currently being explored for its potential as a sustainable material. There is already moulded packaging, which is 100% compostable at home, made from mycelium and the agricultural byproduct of hemp. On the fashion side, Mycoworks is an LA-based brand making leather with Reishi, a high quality material made of fine mycelium that is neither animal nor plastic. Since our interest in buying things (especially clothes) shows little sign of abating, mushrooms are providing the building blocks for less wasteful consumption.
Mushrooms are also a sustainable food source, especially when grown within the UK. According to the Mushroom Miles Report, the growth and harvesting of mushrooms is not only a recyclable farming process but important for environmental sustainability: "While green plants sustain life on the planet, microorganisms, especially fungi [mushrooms] play a vital role in recycling organic matter produced by the green plants on earth." The same report states that 75% of retail mushrooms are supplied within the 'green zone' of under 12 hours and fewer than 400 miles transit. Given that 62% of us are making an effort to reduce food miles, mushrooms are a natural choice. They are also one of the few dietary sources, besides oily fish, of vitamin D.
However, these health and environmental benefits only go some way to explaining the revived interest in mushrooms; in wellness terms, we must look further afield to understand the more radical health claims being made.
Mushrooms have long been consumed for their medicinal benefits in mycophilic cultures. They play a great part in traditional Chinese medicine and have a strong presence in the wellness space, with new and left-field brands selling teas, powders and capsules that boast of mushrooms’ curative properties. The claims range from boosting our immune system to helping defend against cancer.
Dr Andrew Weil is a pioneer in the field of integrative medicine and one of the leading proponents of mushrooms’ health and medicinal benefits in the English-speaking world. At a seminar delivered in conjunction with Origins Skincare (with whom he collaborated on the Mega-Mushroom range), he outlines his work as taking a holistic look at the many different ways we could support our bodies beyond what a GP might prescribe. Crucially, he doesn’t propose rejecting Western medicine but using holistic and conventional treatments in conjunction.
He points to several mushrooms which are of special interest to the integrative medicine community. Mushrooms from the polypore family are very important, he says, as they "increase immune resistance to viral and bacterial infection, and also increase our defences against cancer." Turkey tail, reishi, birch and shelf or bracket fungi have long been consumed for their immune-boosting effects in traditional medicine, either eaten or boiled into teas if they’re too woody or bitter to eat.
Turkey tail is one of the best researched mushrooms and studies suggest that a component of turkey tail, polysaccharide-K (PSK), may stimulate the immune system. Further evidence of mushrooms' benefits comes from a 2017 study which found that they contain unusually high amounts of the antioxidants ergothioneine and glutathione. Antioxidants protect cells from damage associated with illnesses such as cancer, heart disease and Alzheimer’s.
The divide between traditional and current medicine over medicinal mushrooms is false. Penicillin is derived from fungi. Statins, which thin the blood and lower cholesterol, have their origins in fungi. And you only have to look at the strong psychoactive effects of psilocybes (so-called magic mushrooms) to recognise the biochemical impacts of fungi and the potent power that might be found through further research. However, current evidence is still lacking for many of these claims as research has not gone beyond test tube or animal studies.
Depending on how you feel about wellness fads, the validity of mushrooms as a medicine is easy to embrace or dismiss. I fall more on the sceptical side, but I’m mindful of what is at the root of my scepticism: is it from seeing too many fads come and go (hi CBD oil) which seem to have only placebo effects? Or is it rooted in a subconscious belief that anything not sanctified by Western medicine must be a con? It’s probably a mixture of both. There is some compelling evidence and a long history to suggest that mushrooms shouldn’t be rejected out of hand. Yet while there seems to be limited harm in consuming mushrooms for their claimed wellness benefits, taking them to 'cure cancer' is far from a good idea if you forgo other treatments. It is always wise to be mindful of hyperbolic claims and think about where you are getting these mushrooms from. With every new health or wellness interest comes a flurry of related products, often with little to no evidence to support their claims.
A quick trip to the Somerset House exhibition will be enough to convince you that mushrooms, the strange fleshy growths that sprout from rotting trees, hold within them the mystery of nature we’ve lost in the modern world.
Where once we may have fled from that mystery into the arms of sterilised certainty, it makes sense to want to return to the earth, to find roots in an increasingly chaotic world. It’s compelling to think that the answer to so many of our woes has been growing below us, untouched by our worries.