Meet the Citizen Scientists Who Think Mushrooms Have Superpowers

Photo: Johan Hansson/Creative Commons Attribution

Last month, around 2,500 people with some connection to hallucinogenic drugs gathered at the Oakland Marriott City Center in Oakland, California for what might best be described as the psychedelics state of the union. Psychedelic Science 2017, as it was more formally known, drew professionals of all stripes: chemists who make the hallucinogens, neuroscientists who study their effects on the brain, therapists who discuss their after-effects on patients, shamans and healers who administer the drugs, and anthropologists like Joanna Steinhardt, who are trying to make sense of the meaning of psychedelic culture.

At the conference, Steinhardt, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of California, Santa Barbara, delivered a talk describing her research on a specific subset of amateur scientists within this world: DIY mycologists. Some of these mushroom enthusiasts who grow their fungi at home use them in recipes, or to make medicinal tinctures. But others get more creative, using them for citizen-science projects like myco-remediation (cleaning environmental toxins with fungi), myco-forestry (using mushrooms to maintain forest health), and doing DNA analysis on mushrooms to determine local strains.

It’s a good time to be a magic-mushroom fan. In the 1960s, hallucinogens like LSD were used by therapists to successfully treat patients with a range of mental conditions, a line of treatment that was ended with the Controlled Substances Act in 1970. But now, after years of research and advances in brain imaging, hallucinogens are being taken seriously again. Recent research has shown that psilocybin, the active ingredient in hallucinogenic mushrooms, can reduce anxiety in end-of-life cancer patients. The mushrooms are currently classified by the Drug Enforcement Agency as Schedule 1 drugs, meaning they are thought to have no medicinal value and a high potential for abuse. Nevertheless, advocates believe the opposite: that they are indeed medicinal, and not at all addictive. They also believe that they have the potential to become legalized therapeutic medicines within the next decade.

But many members of the DIY mycology community, which has emerged in the last decade or so, are more interested in the other things that mushrooms can do. The movement is based in part on the work of Paul Stamets, whose book Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World posits that mushrooms can, well, save the world. He argues that mycelium, the fine web of cells that branch out from the fruiting part of the mushroom and act sort of like the fungus’s nervous system and stomach, can break down and digest oil, plastic, and other toxic waste materials. As Vice noted in a 2015 profile, Stamet’s also found that some mushrooms contain compounds that can be used against certain viruses and bacteria, including E. coli, influenza, and smallpox, a finding that’s attracted the attention of scientists at the National Institutes of Health. Stamets, who is seen as somewhat of an evangelist for the fungal kingdom, also spoke at the conference, announcing that he hopes to one day create a psilocybin vitamin, a proclamation that was met with wild cheers from the crowd of mushroom-lovers.

Because the world of professional mycology is so small, many amateur mycologists feel their contributions to the understudied world of fungi can be of great use to the scientific community — according to Steinhardt, only about 5 percent of the world’s mushrooms are thought to have been identified. “Mycology is a world where the amateurs are really important,” she says. “They become obsessive hobbyists and can become experts themselves.”

Several of them also hope to turn their hobbies into scientific breakthroughs, she says. Amateur mycologists in the Bay Area are growing oyster mycelium to eat oil-soaked soil inside of a petri dish. Others are testing whether a type of mushroom called sulphur shelf can be used as an herbicide to stop invasive eucalyptus trees from re-sprouting, or trying to myco-remediate plots of land within Oakland for urban farming. Still others still are helping to classify various species of mushrooms, and making medicinal tinctures out of reishi, which boosts immunity, and cordyceps, which boosts energy and gives athletes endurance.

Although their work has nothing to do with hallucinations, she says, the DIY mycology movement owes much to psychedelic mushrooms — especially the famed psilocybe cubensis, the most common species of psychedelic mushroom, which served as an introduction for mushroom cultivation for many in the community. (Stamets in particular has called Psilocybe his “gateway” to the study of mycology.) In the late 1950s, R. Gordon Wasson, a vice-president at J.P. Morgan and an amateur mycologist, traveled to Mexico in search of fabled mushrooms that could induce visions, introducing them to the U.S. via a Life magazine article describing his journey. Throughout the following decade, American spiritual seekers traveled to Mexico in search of the psychedelic mushrooms — until, eventually, mycologists realized that the U.S. had its own magic mushrooms, growing throughout the Northwest and the Southeast, Steinhardt says.

A series of books followed over the later decades of the 20th century, teaching Americans how to grow psychedelic mushrooms in their homes, including Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide, co-written by Terence McKenna, the ethnobotanist and psychonaut, and his brother Dennis, the ethnopharmacologist; and Stamets’s Psilocybe Mushrooms and Their Allies and The Mushroom Cultivator. Around the same time, a “vast rhizomorphic web known as the internet was also growing,” says Steinhardt. “Websites like Shroomery and Mycotopia were founded in the mid-1990s with forums focused on psilocybe cultivation, allowing people to swap information, troubleshoot their failures and crowdsource solutions” for growing psychedelic and non-psychedelic mushrooms alike.

Along the way, many amateur mycologists began to think of their hobby in more spiritual terms. One member of Steinhardt’s study, who describes himself as a psychedelic naturalist, told her that psychedelics played a big part in shaping who he is today. “When I experienced a spiritual state [under the psychedelic’s influence],” she recalled him telling her, “what immediately became crystal clear to me is that all organisms are valid and alive and interconnected. And we all share life together … There is no me without the ecosystem. There is no me without the trees, or bacteria, or mountains and rivers, and there’s no me without the entire framework.”

Even foraging for mushrooms can be a transcendent experience to some mycologists, Steinhardt says. Another study subject described foraging as “a really deep connection … connection to myself, connection to community, and to the earth, and obviously, to mushrooms.” (Still, the subject believes there’s a limit to “the gospel and the dogma” of a psychedelic trip. “I have known a lot of people who have taken that … way too far,” he says.)

To Steinhardt, the most compelling part of the DIY mycology community is how broad it is: Although an interest in mycology often stems from the psychedelic underground, it opens people into the much larger world of fungi. Psychedelic mushrooms aren’t the only mushrooms with interesting powers, she says. There are also some mushrooms that eat oil spills, and some that glow in the dark, and, yes, some that taste really good.

“Psychedelic mushrooms are just one corner of the fungal kingdom,” she says, “that does all kinds of crazy things.”

The Citizen Scientists Who Think Mushrooms Have Superpowers