Mushrooms Might or Might Not Be Magic, But They Are Medicine

The Fungal Pharmacopeia

Up to you if you think mushrooms are magic—and whatever comes to mind when you think of magic mushrooms—is really open to interpretation. Might be a caterpillar on a toadstool, a plastic baggie full of dried fungus in your freshman dorm room, fairies flitting between parasol-like caps hung with shaggy lace, Super Mario growing twice his size after eating a polka-dotted red mushroom or the reishi the Chinese man at the farmers market gave you careful instruction on how to make tea out of to help your asthma. Like we said, up to you, and the world of mycelium is varied enough that all these mushroom modes (and many more) are possible.

Psilocybe are hallucinatory, podostroma deadly, and amanita can be both. You might enjoy mushrooms as something to look at, to make spore prints from for the purposes of art or identification, collect them as a part of a hike, simply to cook and enjoy or for medicine. Merlin Sheldrake, a biologist with a PhD from Cambridge may enjoy oyster mushrooms lightly sautéed in garlic and olive oil, but his interest in them goes far beyond the culinary or even medicinal into exploring our co-evolutionary journey with fungi, as he does in his recent book Entangled Life. For our Interview Issue, legendary mycologist Paul Stamens chose to interview Merlin. When asked how he was led to mycology, Merlin said, “Fungi are so connected to so many aspects of our lives that you don’t have to look far to find a path that will take you to a fungal answer.”

Merlin Sheldrake demonstrating how smart a truffle is. Photo Cosmo Sheldrake.

It did not take Paul and Merlin long, about 20 minutes, to begin talking about how the mushrooms might be using us to get off this planet (Stamets is actually working on a research project with NASA about growing space mushrooms). If you were going for a walk one day, like Paul was on the way to his laboratory, and you came across a very rare species of psilocybin mushrooms called psilocybe baeocystis lined up in a perfect row for you to pick you might be forgiven for thinking those fungi were smarter about having some alien intentions by taking advantage you proclivities for their fruiting bodies. “Do you think that the occurrence of psilocybin mushrooms associated with human activities is somehow the species calling out to us, or trying to get our attention?” Paul asked Merlin. “If you were an organism and you opportunistically by chance found another way of spreading yourself, genomically it’s in your best interest to capitalize on that sudden association and new discovery to say, ‘Hey, humans, I’m over here again. Come pick me up, because I want my progeny to be preserved and survive.’ ”

Hey, humans, I’m over here again. Come pick me up.

While it is certainly worth noting that mycorrhizae and mycelium are so integral to agriculture and useful to our diet and nutrition directly that there’s value in exploring if mushrooms could grow on asteroids that it is this is not a story about astro-mycology. Even if the mushrooms are just truing to use us to hitch a ride on the next SpaceX mission. But mushrooms have been known in Asia to have medicinal properties for hundreds of years, with centuries-old Chinese texts describing the fungal pharmacopeia.

All these things are in that jar.

These health and wellness boosting adaptogenic properties are really just beginning to be studied more deeply. For example, studies have shown that beta-glucan polysaccharides and triterpenes, among other active compounds, in reishi mushrooms support immune functions and have been used to fight viruses and have even been used in treatment for patients suffering from HIV and cancer, and has also been shown to support respiratory function, with convenient supplements available.

Reishi, which gets the nickname “the immortality mushroom” for its many wellness boosting properties isn not alone. Chaga is another mushroom that has been shown to have remarkable immunity support and even tumor-suppressing properties when taken regularly. Chaga and reishi aren’t the easiest mushrooms to prepare and consume on your own—they are hard, dense growths found in the bark of birch trees and on rotting wood respectively, that involve laborious preparation to ingest so luckily folks like Plant People have already done the work and offer all the above and more in a jar full of supplements.

Certain mushrooms, like maitake (or “hen-of-the-woods”), lion’s mane and even good old shiitake have beneficial properties like stimulating the immune system and are also pretty damn good in a stir fry. But we’ll save those recipes for another story.