The gospel of mushrooms: how foraging became hip

For generations coming of age during the climate crisis, the powerful organisms are more important than ever

Cassandra Posey was a 25-year-old fashion branding consultant living in the Lower East Side of Manhattan when, in the spring of 2018, she and a girlfriend got into a near-strangers car bound for Baltimore. The driver was a friend-of-a-friend named William Padilla-Brown, a dreadlocked permaculturist who sold mushrooms and their cultures from his home in Asheville, North Carolina.

He and Posey had recently begun exchanging messages on Instagram, where they bonded over a shared interest in plant-based medicines. When Padilla-Brown offered to drive Posey to a workshop he was giving on spirulina cultivation, she lied that her friend was going through a difficult breakup and would need to tag along, just in case the ride should warrant a wingwoman.

We hopped in the car, Posey recalls, and Ill never forget, he was playing some creepy house music and I was like, Oh, its going to be one of those rides, you know?

But almost immediately, they became a couple; about as quickly, Posey started a mushroom business of her own. Within a year, joined by Padilla-Browns four-year-old son, Leo, they would relocate to a farm in rural Lancaster county, Pennsylvania, to raise chickens, tend a garden and spread the gospel of fungi.


As far as hobbies go, mycology the study, collection and cultivation of fungi has never been wildly removed from the mainstream. Upwards of 90 local mushroom clubs exist throughout the US and Canada; members host foraging walks and help each other tackle subtle taxonomical variants.

Despite its quiet proliferation, mushroom hunting has, until recently, retained something of an old-world mystique. The age demographic associated with the activity has been, accordingly, not exactly young. But sometime in the last decade, theres been a shift.

On Instagram, hashtags like #mushroomhunting and #mushroomsofinstagram have been used more than a million times. The photos depict prized edibles on the forest floor crinkle-capped morels or vase-like chanterelles and, naturally, bright-eyed influencers proudly cradling armfuls of Technicolor chicken of the woods.

As younger generations come of age in an era of climate catastrophe, more and more members of the Gen Z and millennial cohorts are turning to the earth for answers to their own wellbeing and the health of the planet. Their burgeoning mushroom madness just might be the quintessential sign of the times.

Posey, Padilla-Brown, and little Leo were among the more than 300 mushroom enthusiasts most in their 20s and 30s who recently set up camp on a tract of land in upstate New Yorks Adirondack Park for the second annual New Moon Mycology Summit.

The summits packed program included workshops on DIY mushroom cultivation and guided walks to identify medicinal plants. Environmental stewardship was a recurrent theme of conversation throughout, which was infused with the language of anti-capitalist activism and an emphasis on living more reciprocally with nature amid an economy of extraction.

A collection of mushrooms gathered from the South Mountain Reservation. Photograph: Adrienne Grunwald

People are seeking the return-to-the-land thing, says Olga Tzogas, a co-organizer who runs Smugtown Mushrooms in Rochester, New York.

Now 34, she was 20 when she got into mycology through a community college class. When she joined her first mushroom club shortly thereafter, she encountered few other fungi hobbyists under the age of 50. But, she notes, with social media, its definitely changed and accelerated, with a lot more younger people.

The mass proliferation of social media coincides with resurgent interest in the medicinal potential of various wild mushroom species. The trend has been amplified by the Gwyneth Paltrow-approved Moon Juice proprietress, Amanda Chantal Bacon, whose line of mushroom-infused nutritional supplements (or dusts) sell SoCal yoga mom allure to the well-heeled masses. But those in the know would probably argue that contemporary mycologists like Paul Stamets, Tradd Cotter and Peter McCoy walked so that Bacon, with her Goop-ified potions, could run.

They really brought the world of medicinal fungi and permaculture, remediation, and things like this to the forefront, says the New York Mycological Society president, Tom Bigelow, which is really intriguing and appealing to younger people. Since the group set up an online payment option for club dues in 2012, membership has nearly tripled and become visibly age-diverse.

mushroom photos

Bigelow joined the New York City mushroom club in 2007, 45 years after its founding by a group of amateur mycologists that included the avant-garde musician John Cage. For the past two years, he and a fellow member have undertaken an intensive survey project cataloguing nearly 850 fungi species and counting across New York City.

Theres so much potential with fungi and what theyre able to do for the environment, the positive impacts they can have on us from a wellness standpoint, says Bigelow. Its become really entrenched in popular culture now. Peoples minds are blown by it, and they want to learn about it.

New biomedical research, while not yet definitive, is promising. Cordyceps, for instance, contain a compound that may boost cognition and memory. Studies suggest that other mushrooms, such as turkey tail and chaga, may even slow the growth of cancer cells.

Of course, the medical use of mushrooms is far from new. Otzi, the Neolithic man whose frozen body was found in the Italian Alps in 1991, had birch fungus on his tool belt that may have been used to treat intestinal parasites. Penicillin and the first generation of the cholesterol-lowering drugs, statins, are among many pharmaceutical agents that derive an active ingredient from fungi.

And yet, western society has until lately suffered what Tzogas calls fungi phobia. For centuries, people didnt understand the biology of mushrooms, why they would show up without warning after a rainy day. Some you could eat, while others, if ingested, could produce visions of the devil.

Therein lies the appeal. The study of fungi is fundamentally about the joy of mastery, of learning the taxonomies and ecology of a notoriously complex family of organisms. The stakes are thrillingly high: anything less than absolute certainty in ones identification of a wild edible mushroom species can land its eater in the hospital or, in some circumstances, the grave.

Despite the risks, mycology offers a seemingly bottomless well of discovery. There is an inherent optimism in its pursuit. A recent memoir by the anthropologist Long Litt Woon details how the authors obsessive mycological immersion helped her cope with the unexpected death of her husband. Mushroom outings gave me the push I needed to get out of the house and take part in life, she writes.

The mycologist Paul Sadowski speaks with members of the New York Mycological Society. Photograph: Adrienne Grunwald

Endlessly complex, mushrooms unlock a portal of exciting possibility a future that utilizes regenerative, fungus-derived plastics and Styrofoam-like packing materials, and that even taps into mycelial networks to graft artificial organs. The growing discipline of mycoremediation has opened new windows for harnessing mycelia to filter environmental pollutants and, as Tzogas puts it, help clean up the messes humans have made.

Then, of course, theres the other kind of magic associated with mushrooms. Mounting interest in the psychotherapeutic and cognitive benefits of hallucinogenic psilocybin mushrooms came to a head last year with the author Michael Pollans paean to psychedelics, How to Change Your Mind, which became an instant bestseller.

The podcaster Joe Rogan, a vocal advocate of psilocybin use and legalization, beat Pollan to the chase with a lengthy 2017 episode of The Joe Rogan Experience in which the mycologist Paul Stamets declared his belief that psilocybin should be looked upon as a nootropic vitamin.

But the psychedelic piece of our fungal future may pose some of the most immediate questions about mushrooms relationship to social and environmental ethics, responsibility and the justice system. A keynote panel discussion at the New Moon summit considered how the recent decriminalization of psilocybin mushrooms in cities such as Denver and Oakland, California, might affect communities of color, cutting to the heart of the complex and intersecting societal implications just beneath the surface of fungis fascinating science.

As has been true of the legal cannabis industry, those who stand to profit most from an above-ground psilocybin marketplace are unlikely to resemble the mostly racialized and, often, poor casualties of the countrys continuing war on drugs. (The PayPal billionaire and Gawker foe Peter Thiel stepped in last year as a major investor in the psychedelics startup Compass Pathways.)

It is a cruel but maybe unsurprising irony that the biggest liability in mycological discovery is us, the human beings poised to put its possibilities into practice. Fungi may eventually offer some measure of environmental relief from the contaminants weve created, but it cannot make us stop contaminating. Medical discovery will not, in and of itself, ensure equitable access to mushroom-based therapies, nor will it guarantee the sustainable cultivation of associated species.

To fully reap whatever riches may emerge from within the fungal kingdom, we will need to reconsider some of our most deeply ingrained habits as a species with a demonstrated knack for destruction. Our collective missteps are, of course, what have made the prospects so enticing.

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