I mostly remember the cool, dark mornings that turned, slowly, into day through the high evergreen canopy. We'd left well before dawn and were walking uphill through a forest of mature spruce with tracts of larch and hardwoods. Come fall, these would become golden veins running down the mountainside, but now everything was a deep green-black, and smelled like fairytale: rich, earthy but also evergreen, moist from yesterday's rain, promising something magical just over the next rise. In my mind, this was the reason we had gotten up so early: to experience a time apart, when the forest was just waking up and had let down its guard, revealing its heart. I know my dad appreciated this time as well, but for him, the rationale was more practical: if we'd lingered too long over breakfast, others might beat us to the mushrooms.
We would spend a lot of time in the summer at my grandmother's house, at the edge of a small city in the middle of the arc of the Alps. In the evenings, if there had been rain (and the moon was right), plans were made for going a funghi, or mushrooming. While you could find some boletes and other nice mushrooms in the woods around the house, those trails were too well traveled. So we'd listen to proposals for which secret spot would have the best prospects, pick one, and drive out early the next day. We'd carry baskets, small knives, and sometimes little boar-bristle brushes (like the kind used for shaving cream, but smaller). We'd always find a few boletes, including king boletes (porcini or, in the northern dialect, brise), Russolas of varying colors, and even the side bonus of some berries if they were still in season. But the bulk of our quarry were the chanterelles (Cantarellus), golden-yellow and very firm, growing in stands so big that you sometimes imagined you'd been stooped over for hours meticulously cutting the stalks from the forest floor. It helped that they were so bright on the green backdrop, and as kids we really felt we'd struck gold when we found them. The forest had kept its promise: there truly was something magical over that rise. We called them finferli, an Italianized version of the German Pfifferlinge, so named after the peppery, buttery noodle dish we'd all devour when later, starving, we got back home. (image credit: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
Chanterelles came back to those secret spots in part because they are a type of mushroom that establishes a long-term relationship with the plants, mostly trees, growing around them. The bonding happens underground, where the true body of the mushroom--its mycelium--tangles its way between tree roots. Chanterelles (and boletes as well, for that matter) establish mycorrhizae with their plant partners, a combination of mycelium and root. The mycelium breaks down minerals in the soil and make them more water-soluble for the plant, which returns the favor in the form of sugars produced by photosynthesis. Almost all plants have these mycorrhizae, though most grow as arbuscularmycorrhizae, where the mycelium threads its way inside the plant's cells. Chanterelles, botetes, and other mutualistic species of mushrooms form ectomycorrhizae, where mycelium and root touch, exchange nutrients, but never invade each other's tissues. Nevertheless, the relationship is highly specific: the same spruce trees will support the growth of those same golden mushrooms year after year.
We'd eat all kinds of mushrooms, but the older kids and grownups knew, and warned us, never to eat a mushroom we didn't clearly recognize. We were taught look-alikes, and quizzed on the different types of Russola: which were good, and which would make you sick (I never fully figured it out, and still avoid Russolas for the most part if I'm foraging alone). The danger, of course, is real: certain mushrooms can produce some very toxic chemistry, and while some can give you a stomachache, others can be lethal. One of the first mushrooms I learned was Amanita phalloides, the death cap, with its pale, green-yellow color. A single mushroom can kill you--though it takes two days. Relatives, like Amanita bisporigera in the eastern forests of North America, are just as deadly and have earned the name "destroying angel". All of them contain amanitotoxin, a complex protein that prevents messenger RNA from working properly. The liver accumulates the protein and its cells stop working. Other mushrooms contain kidney-toxic molecules, while others can cause a dangerous drop in blood pressure and muscle tone. At first, my dad wouldn't let me go off and gather alone. Eventually, once I was confident I knew my poisonous species, that changed.
Here in the eastern United States, I still get to find chanterelles and boletes. But in spring, before the June winds blow off the dandelion seeds, we go out hoping to find morels (members of the Morchella genus). They don't always reliably return to the same spots--some are mycorrhizal, some don't seem to be--but if you're lucky, in mixed hardwoods and especially around old ash trees, you will find two or three of these beautiful, delicious mushrooms. Morels belong to an ancient class of mushroom, the Ascomycota, and are more closely related to molds than to chanterelles, boletes, Russolasor Amanitas(these latter species are part of the Basidiomycota). The main difference between these two classes is how they produce and disseminate their spores (which, of course, is the reason the mycelium even makes a mushroom to being with: what we see above ground is the reproductive organ, the fruiting body that releases spores). Chanterelles and Amanitasmake basidia, small structures lining gills or opening into pores on the underside of the mushroom cap. Morels and molds (and other fungi, like Cordyceps), on the other hand, make conidia, which are branching tendrils that differentiate into spores at their terminal end. These conidia-bearing fungi can be just as delectable, though there are toxic species here too, especially among the molds. But molds have also brought us some life-changing medicinal compounds: the first antibiotic, for example, was isolated from a mold in the genus Penicillium. Now we realize that all mushrooms must be savvy chemists, able to produce: signal molecules for communicating with their plant partners; antimicrobials to compete effectively with bacteria in rotting wood or leaf litter (or old bread); enzymes for breaking down tough, woody material to extract the last bit of sugar; and a host of other compounds we are just starting to characterize.
As an herbalist, this chemistry is fascinating, as it helps me understand why medicinal mushrooms might be useful allies. It also helps to remember that humans have been using these allies for a very long time. Take the case of Ötzi, a mummified human from over five thousand years ago. He was discovered locked in ice, in a glacier right above the mountains where we would forage in when I was young. Among his belongings was a birch polypore (Fomitopsis betulina), a shelf mushroom with a strong medicinal reputation. It is significant that he chose to carry this mushroom: aside from a bow, arrows, an axe, and fire-starting materials, he had his clothes, some berries, and this polypore.
Shelf mushrooms, or those that grow like small shelves off of old stumps or logs, represent a group of fungi known as the saprotrophs, or wood-rotting mushrooms. They do not make mycorrhizal partnerships with plants, choosing instead to decompose old organic material (note: saprotrophs can make classic "mushrooms" too, just think of shiitake). Most off the shelf mushrooms we use for medicinal purposes have pores on their undersides rather than gills (though oyster mushrooms, which love poplar wood, have gills and lion's mane has unique tooth-like structures for spore dissemination). Though there are some exceptions, these species aren't the tastiest, and can be woody and fibrous--but they make up for this with an abundance of medicinal compounds. Take reishi (Ganoderma, often lucidumor tsugae, though there are many other medicinal species): it carries high concentrations of steroid-like molecules known as ganoderic acids, Reishi makes these compounds from ergosterol, the mushroom version of our own cholesterol, which is abundant in all fungal species and turns into vitamin D2 when exposed to UV radiation (dry your mushrooms in the sun). Most mushrooms can deliver some of this vitamin, along with an appreciable amount of beta-glucans, and reishi is no exception. These compounds can support innate immune function as they pass through our GI tract*, and this may be why reishi has gained its traditional reputation as a mushroom with immune-supporting qualities.
But while many mushrooms contain these medicinal molecules, we are uncovering more and more unique ones that are only found in specific species. On the dark side, we have some of the toxins in the Amanitas. But on a more positive note, compounds like erinacinesfrom the lion's mane fungus (Hericium erinaceus) are showing promise as nerve-support agents, and may support cognitive function and memory1*. Chaga (Inonotus obliquus) is particularly rich in beta-glucans but, since it is a parasite of birch trees, also contains modified versions of betulin which may have additional, cell-supportive effects2*. Shiitake (Lentinula edodes) contains eritadenine, similar to our own adenosine, and may be able to support liver health3*. Though research is still in its infancy, science is slowly revealing why herbalists have been using mushrooms since the time of Ötzi--and earlier.
On occasion, we'd come across a special mushroom on our long chanterelle excursions. It's impossible to miss: bright red with white spots, the classic toadstool of every folktale, Amanita muscaria(the fly agaric) emerges from an ovule (a small, egg-like structure made from a tangle of mycelium). As the ovule expands, it outgrows a thin veil which stretches and tears across the cap, leaving the characteristic white spots. This one was part of the "to-be-avoided" class, and my dad still calls it poisonous. So we never picked or tried it, though its pull and fascination never left me: why was it in every picture of forest gnomes, or fairy-spirits? Why was it so special?
This species of Amanita won't kill you, though it may give you a stomach ache if you ingest it (and we don't recommend trying). Once dried, it features two unique compounds with notable effects: the first is muscarine, which is present in small quantities and has an activating effect on the parasympathetic nervous system. This makes the fly agaric dangerous in high doses. But the second, which is more abundant, is called muscimol and its effects seem quite interesting: though it is not similar to the alkaloid psilocybin found in "magic" mushrooms, it may have hallucinogenic qualities. This points to one more important element of the human-mushroom relationship: traditionally, certain species were revered for ritual and spiritual purposes. The fly agaric is no exception: some say it was the divine Soma of the Vedic tradition, inspiring fervent poetry from the India of four thousand years ago. Others have proposed that the white-spotted red cape of Lapland shamans (and Santa Claus) was a nod to the ritual use of these mushrooms, which the shamans learned by copying the reindeer, who leap and fly after eating them. But perhaps my favorite legend of the fly agaric comes from a valley just to the west of where I grew up: the Val Camonica, just north of Lake Iseo.
Rising up from the plains through the foothills of the Alps, this valley is home to a collection of incredible petroglyphs, featuring geometric themes, astronaut-like human beings, hunters, and--mushrooms. The oldest are from ten thousand years ago. The site was continuously inhabited since then, and, we think, also served as a destination for pilgrims wanting to tap into the power the valley holds. Some say that initiation rituals, perhaps involving the fly agaric mushroom, took place here for many thousands of years--until, that is, the Inquisition came to the valley in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. While the old rituals may have died back during that time, a new fairytale arose and spread from northern Italy to the rest of the world, and we all know it today: the tale of Little Red Riding Hood. Based on the historical record, and ethnographic study of traditional initiation rituals4, it seems that a central element of these ceremonies was a large replica of a wild animal, perhaps a spiritually-significant animal, that the initiate would have to enter. These replicas were made from wood and brambles, and would become a prison that the initiate would only escape from with the assistance of the shaman. After this, the initiate was "reborn" into their new role, and celebrated. So, in the end, some speculate that the story of the young girl who wears a red (with white spots?) cap, and is eaten up by a wolf only to be freed by the wise woodman, is a way to encode this ritual and hide it from the repressive authorities. In this context, the red cap is the literal red cap of the fly agaric, used to catalyze the magical conversion of wooden sculpture to true totem animal.
Whether you believe this story or not, you cannot deny that mushrooms have an outsized role in our imaginations, kitchens, and beyond. We have appreciated these mysterious beings throughout history, and not only for their flavor. Maybe the thrill of finding that elusive morel, or seeing the glistening red of a reishi on an old stump, is what keeps us coming back. Maybe it is that mushrooms fulfill the forest's promise of magic and adventure we all remember from childhood. These are wild beings, converting death to life, true balance-walkers who live in a world between plant and animal. May you find the ones you need.
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