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Mushrooms are literal superheroes. Yes, mushrooms. Hear me out.



Food writer Jocelyn Doyle digs down into how mushrooms might just save us from ourselves…


I’ve always been fascinated by fungus. I was a very weird little science-obsessed child, and my mother once found slices of mouldy bread in my wardrobe. “Don’t throw that out,” I said, as she turned to me in deep confusion. “I’m growing white mould.” I was five, and I did not have normal hobbies. 

As an adult whose pastimes are now largely cooking and eating, mushrooms are one of my favourite foods: sautéed in butter until golden and glistening; simmering in broth; luxuriating in cream sauces; stuffed and baked. I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t had a couple of pretty fantastic experiences with the magic variety, too. Seeing as my other hobby is reading (often about food), I’ve been falling down a bit of a literary rabbit hole about mushrooms and other fungi, and the more I learn, the more I’m convinced that they’re the coolest damn thing on the planet. Read on while I wax lyrical about the power and potential of this almost alien world.

Fungi, including mushrooms, moulds and yeasts, are both ancient and omnipresent. Fungus is in the air we breathe (rather unfortunately for my allergies) and stretches miles through the soil under our feet, communicating through a complex, microscopic network known as mycelium. They’re not plants, either; having diverged from other life around 1.5 billion years ago, they are quite firmly doing their own thing, and are actually more closely related to you than to the vegetables beside them in your stir-fry.

The largest living organism in the world — thought for years to be the 33.5m-long blue whale — is actually a giant Armillaria ostoyae, or honey fungus, stretching out silently under Oregon’s Blue Mountains. Discovered in 1998, it covers a whopping 2,385 acres. Based on its current growth rate, the fungus is estimated to be 2,400 years old, but could be up to 8,650 years of age, potentially meaning that it’s also one of the oldest living organisms in existence.

Marvelling at the oddly foreign nature of fungus is one thing, but I’m not exaggerating when I say that mushrooms have the power to change the world. In fact, they’ve already done plenty for us: penicillin, the first antibiotic, was created from the basis of penicillium mould — the blue-green veins that make Roquefort and other blue cheeses what they are — and several modern antibiotics and chemotherapy drugs are derived from different mushroom species today. Without fungus in the forms of yeasts and moulds, we would also be bereft of bread, beer, wine, cheeses: foods that have influenced cultures for millennia and helped shape who we are as humans. 

Here are just a few ways in which fungi’s incredible benefits have yet to be fully explored.

I mentioned mycelium. Picture a network of fine, gossamer threads, individually known as hyphae, weaving through the earth in fields and forests. The mushrooms we see popping up through damp soils in the autumn are merely the fruits of these expansive networks. In recent years, we’ve learned that healthy plants and trees are reliant on these clever hyphae. Fungi infect woodland plants, forming a symbiotic relationship: the plant provides the fungus with food, while the fungus protects the plant from harmful insect or microorganism parasites in return. There is also evidence to suggest that trees use the network of hyphae to communicate with one another: a silent internet of the forest. 

Mushrooms also play an important role as decomposers in the soil food web, converting organic matter that is difficult to digest into forms that other organisms can use for sustenance. With the climate crisis more urgent than ever, our forests play a crucial role in storing carbon, and must be nurtured and protected. Fungi are a vital component in their continued health and longevity.

In fact, it’s increasingly likely that mushrooms will be key in turning the tide of human damage done to our world. As I mentioned, they can provide unparalleled support for forest ecosystems, meaning that the deliberate introduction of these symbiotic species can encourage and aid in reforestation. Certain species produce enzymes that digest the hydrocarbons in petroleum; others can even digest polyurethane plastics. There are studies being done into the potential for mushrooms to absorb radiation from contaminated soil and water following a nuclear disaster.

Mushrooms are also an MVP when it comes to sustainable agriculture. Because they can use by-products recycled from other crops as compost for growth, mushrooms have a minimal environmental impact. They use little water — under two gallons per pound — and produce extremely low CO2 emissions. They also require very little land; a single acre can produce up to one million pounds of mushrooms. 

And what of their benefits to our bodies? Mushrooms offer B vitamins, vitamin D, fibre, protein and antioxidants. Moulds — such as those found on certain types of cheese — provide beneficial microorganisms for our digestive systems. Fungi have untapped potential for doing our minds good, too. I am in no way recommending that anyone takes this as medical advice — please remember, I am just some random food writer and definitively not a doctor — but more and more studies show promising results from the controlled ingestion of psilocybin, the psychoactive substance in ‘magic’ mushrooms. Used in selective and well-managed environments for issues like end-of-life acceptance, grief, depression and anxiety, it appears that psilocybin can have an impressive and lasting effect. Expect to see more research in the years to come, likely leading to the establishment of specialised clinics that can offer new treatments for mental health problems like these.

If you find mushrooms as intriguing as I do, this is only the very tip of the iceberg — the tiny mushroom fruiting from an enormous underground mycelium. The world of fungi is bizarre, absorbing and constantly surprising. Here are a couple of recommendations to get you started: Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake (what a name) blew my mind a few months back, Michael Pollan’s This Is Your Mind on Plants is excellent — as is everything Pollan writes — and Paul Stamet’s TED Talk 6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World is well worth a watch. 

If all else fails, just grow some white mould in your wardrobe. Your mum will love it.