I’ve had a poster by David Arora hanging in my bedroom for over 20 years, titled: “Edible Mushrooms of the Forest Floor.” It’s stunning in colour, and the variety of all the different mushrooms would make your eyes cross if you looked at it for too long — but I love it. I love knowing that the mushroom is genetically closer to mammals than it is to plants. I love knowing that the largest known organism on Earth is a mushroom, but even with all this information, I also developed a fear of coming across one of them on a walk through the forest.
What if the mushroom was just a look-a-like of its non-toxic sister, and then my dog eats it? Or if the spores somehow get in my lungs and I become a mushroom lady? I think anyone would question the situation, rushing to the vet or calling poison control. As a society we generally fear fungi and their fruit — the mushroom — unless it’s wrapped in cellophane at the grocery store, assuming it can only be poisonous if found on its own. But in reality, mushrooms are the most incredible, productive, and fascinating organisms on our planet. And we’re still learning what they can do for us as well as what they can do to us.
In the past few weeks, I’ve had multiple conversations about mushrooms. The conversation usually starts with me asking the person, “Have you heard of Paul Stamets?” I’m always desperately trying to talk about his discoveries, but the conversation always leads to talking about psychedelic mushrooms (psilocybin). It’s disappointing every time; I take a moment to educate and just get blank stares or glances at the wall behind me.
First, Paul Stamets is a fascinating human being with more passion for fungi than anyone I have yet to come across; and second, I am not talking about psychedelic mushrooms. Although they are a big part of the growing fear that has developed in North America, I’m talking about the mushrooms growing on your lawn in mid-August, or the gourmet boxes you see at the grocery store, or even ones you’ve never heard of like the agarikon mushroom from the Pacific North-West. To me, there are few topics more misunderstood than mushrooms, and what makes it more intriguing for me is how fearful we are of them.
The first mention of mycophobia was by British mycologist W.D. Hay in 1887. He claimed that the people of Britain were well known for being fearful of mushrooms and stayed away from them, almost entirely to avoid poisoning. Now, only buying white button mushrooms to eat and considering portobello mushrooms as an exotic variety in our kitchens is just the tip of the cap of our on-going collective phobia. The only way to release our society from this irrational fear is to become educated, and finally grow out of this hardened primal concern.
Other countries are more inclined to harvest wild mushrooms (eg. Russia, Poland, and Ukraine), and they praise the ability to do so, with legislated guidelines. They’re the ones known as mycophiles, the polar opposite to the Brits of W.D. Hays’ time, and to us in the 21st century. David Arora — a veteran in the mycological community — as well as mushroom cultivators, are no stranger to this stigma against their beloved fungal group.
“…consider this: out of several thousand different kinds of wild mushrooms in North America, only five or six are deadly poisonous! And once you know what to look for, it’s about as difficult to tell a deadly Amanita from a savory chanterelle as it is a lima bean from an artichoke.” Comforting words from David Arora. He — as well as Paul Stamets and other mycologists — are patient and attentive to our fears. So before you panic at the park, or the grocery store, remember what you read here today.
If you’re interested in reading more about mycology, fungi, and the people who nurture them check out these sites:
Chloe Vincent is an avid reader, aspiring writer, and lover of culture. Being in her second year of Professional Writing at Algonquin College and a new mother there’s always another step to take to get further. Check out her children’s book “The Life of a Pie” at the Connections store and always check back here for more.