Utah’s mycophile nexus: meet the mushroom people
There’s a word for it in the Potawatomi language: puhpowee, the force that causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight.
We’re lucky to have fungi—a whole kingdom of organisms ready to help us spring a trapdoor out of the ecological corner we’ve painted ourselves into, if only we can be still enough long enough to understand their immense strength. It’s difficult to believe, but soft-bodied mushrooms have enough power to break asphalt as they grow questing for the sky.
Fungi have been around for 1.5 billion years and have shaped the evolution of every other creature on the planet in some way great or small, but our human relationship with them has sometimes been fraught.
Our cultures can be broadly characterized as “mycophilic”—mushroom-loving, or “mycophobic”— mushroom- fearing. In the United States we’ve historically been pretty fearful of mushrooms, but things are changing and the rate of change accelerating as advocates like Paul Stamets, Peter McCoy and Merlin Sheldrake garner more attention.
Puhpowee—what are the mushrooms helping us humans push up out of the soil?
My personal fascination with mushrooms has some deep roots (or mycelia, if you want to use the term for fungal root structure). When I was four, I was so badly frightened by a Clathrus ruber (basket stinkhorn) growing in our tropical back yard that I cried out for my mother to come and destroy it.
Years later I felt guilty about this. But still, years after that, I felt much better when I learned that by “killing”the fruiting body, my mother had only helped the fungus spread its spores more effectively.
I was told, like most other children in the West, to never eat mushrooms that I might find growing, since they might kill me. Mushrooms were safe on pizza, or maybe in salad, and edible ones never looked like anything other than little white buttons.
I’d heard of gourmet and medicinal mushrooms but gave them the suspicious side-eye until a few years ago when my sister-in-law gave me a grow-your-own oyster mushroom kit for Christmas. I was doubtful that anything would happen here in our dry desert climate, but put the kit in the shower stall and lo! mushrooms appeared. They were delicious!
I followed online tutorials and tried my hand at growing other varieties of oyster mushrooms (elm, golden and pink), as well lion’s mane and reishi.
Fast forward to November of last year, when I saw Louie Schwartzberg’s excellent documentary Fantastic Fungi and was so inspired by a CGI rendering of an underground mycelial network that I decided to build a real-life one out of recycled materials for the Urban Arts Alliance’s Dreamscapes immersive art experience at the Gateway in downtown Salt Lake.
With all these mushrooms on my mind, I wanted to meet more people like me with a passion for things fungal.
Mushroom people, I discovered, are networked a bit like mushrooms themselves. I could have interviewed dozens, since each one I talked to had friends they were excited to point me toward. In the interests of brevity, I kept it to five. Among them, they represent three diverse areas of activity in the fungal renaissance: growing edible gourmet mushrooms, growing and sourcing medicinal mushrooms, and advocacy for psychedelic mushroom therapy.
Whatever the approach, all would agree: Mushrooms get into your soul.
Katie Lawson: The Educator
One good thing about the pandemic is that when we saw grocery stores running out of food, people got motivated to learn how to grow stuff!”Katie is here to help people learn how, particularly when it comes to mushrooms.
The New Jersey native with a BS in political science and a certificate in labor studies says she’s always been involved with economic, social, political and environmental issues. Through Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms, she farmed in Oregon, Georgia and Maine before moving to Utah. Her mycological passion was ignited in 2016 while attending a lecture at the Salt Lake City Library by Peter McCoy, who was touring with his masterwork Radical Mycology: A Treatise on Seeing and Working With Fungi.
She dove in with a passion, attending Mycologos School of Mycology, funded by a microgrant from Slow Food Utah. Now Katie runs her own small CSA and gives workshops and classes on mushroom cultivation, identification and fungal ecology. She has worked with Alta Community Enrichment, The Green Urban Lunch Box, Wasatch Community Gardens and the University of Utah Lifelong Learning.
Katie acknowledges that a lot of people find mycology inaccessible. She focuses on making people successful with their projcts so that they get excited about what they’ve learned and want to continue. She distributes mushrooms and grow kits via her CSA and teaches people how to create their own kits to grow.
Even before the pandemic, she says, interest had been building. “I’ve seen the conversation really expanding in the last three years or so. I stick with four species of oysters in my workshops: pink oyster, king oyster, blue oyster, and elm oyster. Blue and elm are the most reliable; blue is a cool weather variety, and elm is a hot weather one.”
The allure and the frustration of growing mushrooms, she says, are two sides of the same coin.
“They’re so mysterious. You can set them up, with everything perfect, and they still don’t do their thing, and then they can surprise you. I’ve had blue oysters fruit in August when they have absolutely no business fruiting, and had king oyster kits, prepared exactly the same, fruit wildly for one customer and do nothing for another. It’s like mushrooms have their personalities and don’t like to be pigeonholed.
“If you look at the way they operate in a forest, they seem to have this type of intelligence, and they know what needs to be done to balance the ecosystem. If we cultivate them they’re sort of, like, ‘no, I do it on my terms!’”
Mushroom people also do things on their own terms. “I have this idea that people who understand fungi interact differently with the world, because fungi interact in ways that are more networked. It’s a mutual aid type of thinking, and it’s cool to see that play out in my personal life. There’s a lot of support and exchange; a little tribe is building around mycology.”
The mind of a mushroom
Entangled Life: How Fungi Make our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures. Merlin Sheldrake: 2020 (Penguin Random House.
The fungi around us are so often hidden and easily go unnoticed, but Entangled Life, Merlin Sheldrake’s masterpiece of a pop-natural-history tome helps us get into what you might call the mind of the mushroom.
From following intrepid biologists into the field, examining the complex communications and relationships between fungi and plants and animals, and considering what actually constitutes intelligence and individuality, this book delivers consistent, thought-provoking delight.
Sheldrake, the son of famed parapsychological researcher Rupert Sheldrake, is an accomplished professional mycologist who blends scientific rigor with companionable musing, presenting the history of his field along with a lucid overview of what’s going on in it right now.
A fascinating and fathomable section on lichens, for example, illuminates an ecological corner that we never knew we could find so engrossing!
From Peter McCoy to Paul Stamets to Terence McKenna (whom Sheldrake hung out with when he was a child), the mycological movers and shakers make their appearance, but Sheldrake doesn’t neglect the lesser-known players either.
At the end of the book we’re left with this question: Between the fungi and us, who’s actually steering the global ecology?
If we’re really able to step outside the collective ego of the animal kingdom, the answer appears yet to be determined.
When the author received his advanced copy of the book he seeded it to grow these mushrooms… which he of course ate. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thesundayedition/the-sunday-edition-for-july-19-2020-1.5647948/inside-the-strange-and-world-changing-kingdom-of-fungi-1.5648084
Gabriela D’Elia has been developing one of the most unique and compellingly interesting practices around mushrooms that I’ve yet encountered, blending the study of fungi with astrological readings and posting videos and podcasts about her work.
Originally from Utah, she moved to Seattle for university and was immediately captivated by the fungal world there.
“Within the first few days I was noticing all these colorful mushrooms around, maybe six or seven different species fruiting in one spot.”Taken aback by them—their smell, color, texture—she started doing research, and eventually chose to focus on mycology in her Environmental Studies program at Seattle University, emmersing herself in the mushroom community. “I joined the Puget Sound Mycology Society and taught a handful of my own classes and did guided walks and some small-scale cultivation.”Eventually she moved back to Utah —a much more challenging climate for mushroom cultivation.
“It’s a totally different game here. You really have to listen to your surroundings, what resources you have access to, and find the way that works best for you.
“The practice of cultivation has been mysterious for so long, and so tucked away in expensive school courses. I think it’s important to encourage a strong DIY practice. Mushrooms and humans both have so much potential to help each other.”
Gabriela grows a few gourmet species, and some medicinals. She is experimenting with using glass jars. Traditional kit grows usually employ single-use plastic bags
What she does with her mushrooms is beyond the expected. She makes small-batch handcrafted tinctures—myco-astrological tinctures, she calls them, letting them steep for at least four weeks. As a practicing astrologer, she says she also brings in whatever moon cycles or solstices are going on, charging the tinctures with planetary essences and their associated healing properties.
“While looking at the associations on a birth chart that refer to body health and psychic and emotional tendencies, it just came to me that there are mushrooms that can be beneficial for these things—that this chart is speaking the personality of a mushroom that can be embodied. So I’ll give people a mushroom species to meditate on, to help them access that.”
Is there a parallel between human collaboration and the symbiotic behavior of some fungi? “Absolutely,”she replies. “Far too often we humans enjoy believing we are separate from the natural world around us. Any way that we can sit in stillness and observe the natural cycles around us can only be beneficial.”
Around 2017, Texas transplant Kevin Parks became interested in medicinal mushroom extracts—reishi, chaga and so on. He began taking them and experienced a noticeable positive difference.
“I wanted to explore mushrooms more after that. They’re so mysterious, and there aren’t many people who know a lot about them.”
He got into growing mushrooms as a hobby, developing a method for making “mushroom jerky”which he sold at the Salt Lake Farmers Market. When COVID hit, he quit cultivating.
While his hobby is on a back burner, his respect for and fascination with mushrooms continues. He has become active in the Mountain Institute for Neuroscience Discipline (MIND Utah), an advocacy group for clinical psilocybin therapy.
A number of FDA-approved studies on psilocybin, the active component in “magic”mushrooms, are currently under way, regarding its potential to heal a variety of mental ailments from depression to PTSD. Interest has been rising in Utah as well as the rest of the nation.
“We are trying to accumulate studies and testimonials to help educate people, to help them understand that these mushrooms are not a party drug,”he says. “They have already been studied a lot, and we’re hopeful to persuade Utah that psilocybin is worthy of clinical and therapeutic use.”
MIND Utah was formed after this past January’s Intermountain Psychedelics Symposium and partners with Utah’s SCPTR, the Symposium’s parent body, and the nationally based MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies.
“These mushrooms are an earth medicine that has been around forever,”he says. “Their efficacy has been proven by many different clinical practitioners, especially internationally, and I believe it’s just a matter of time before people understand and accept this treatment. Everyone knows someone who has a condition that could be helped by this therapy.”
Just like the bulk of a fungus grows underground as mycelium, MIND Utah and other groups are working steadily, quietly, and cooperatively to lay the groundwork for these treatments. “We’re not trying to be our own little entity—we’re in collaboration, just making progress a bit at a time.”
The Gourmet Grower
Adam is the main supplier of gourmet mushrooms to restaurants and farmers markets along the Wasatch Front. The Layton native studied business at the University of Utah. When he was 22 he opened a hemp retail store in Sugar House, which he ran from 2011 to 2015. He presently operates a 4,000-square-ft. warehouse grow space in Ogden.
Chase and Kyle England, who ran a mushroom-growing company called the Biocentric Brothers, paved the way for Adam, he says. The brothers taught classes and sold at farmers markets, but they couldn’t get their production big enough for wholesale and restaurants. “When they closed down, I pivoted from my [hemp] business and dove right in.
Adam intended to start small and focus on oyster mushrooms. But after talking with a few consultants he became convinced a bigger market was there. “So I pulled the trigger, got a big warehouse and equipped it. It was a trial by fire to figure it out as I went!”he recalls.
Adam has since become wildly successful, expanding from a few different species of oyster mushrooms to include lion’s mane, chestnut, pioppino, king trumpet, wood ear, maitake, beech, and reishi (a medicinal). He is presently looking to expand his operation again, potentially purchasing some land and getting out of the urban setting.
Adam also brokers wild-harvested and cultivated mushrooms from all over, bringing in truffles from Europe; seasonal lobster mushrooms, chanterelles and chicken of the woods from Minnesota; and a great variety of other wild mushrooms from the Pacific Northwest.
“People are slowly opening their eyes to the importance of the fungi kingdom, not just as health foods but from a medical standpoint,”he says. “I think we’re starting to realize all the capabilities that fungi have. People want healthier food, they want to be more environmentally conscious, and mushrooms play into a lot of those roles. There’s an awakening here.”
The Medicinals Entrepreneur
Jme (pronounced “Jamie”) got her start working for Paul Stamets’ brand of medicinal mushroom supplements, Host Defense, but has used that springboard to vault into her own medicinal mushroom business, WholeSun Wellness.
She is also the host and organizer of what would have been Utah’s first Fungi Festival—awaiting a safe rescheduling date after having been postponed due to the unforeseen circumstances of this summer.
Jme is a veritable mycological dynamo, advocating for the boundless utility of mushrooms. A Salt Lake native, she started her education in aviation and taught welding at a high school for a while before going back to school for mycology.
“My grandma was into natural remedies and worked with native tribes locally and out of state, but I didn’t know what a supplement was until I walked into a health food store.”
Jme now sources organic medicinal mushrooms from all over the globe. “We source from two organic farms in China, and also from Scotland, Thailand, Canada and Japan. We work exclusively with small independent farmers, with no middle man involvement—I went there myself to make these relationships.”
It soon occurred to her that she could better expand her business by setting up farms in the United States. She is involved in building a Utah facility in south-central Utah which, she says, will produce over a million pounds of biomass a year once it is up and running.
“Our goal is to eventually be 100% USA grown and 100% sustainable in use,”she says, “and our backup will be the international connections.”
What makes WholeSun Wellness products special? Jme says her supplements are made from the fruiting bodies of the mushrooms, unlike other brands that are made from the mycelial roots grown on grain.
“I love mushrooms and I want to keep them how nature grows them,”she says. “There’s no reason for them to be on grain, so at our farms we’re growing them on their native substrates [usually different types of wood].”
She says she is also gearing up to provide legal psilocybin for the upcoming FDA trials. “We’ve been working with legislation in Oregon and Colorado for November,”she says. “We have a really good chance of getting one of the licenses to grow, since we are already in a mushroom world and not, for example, a cannabis company jumping in. We know what we’re doing.”
Reid Robison and Parth Gandhi, organizers of the Intermountain Psychedelics Symposium, are among those slated to speak at Jme’s Utah Fungi Festival as soon as the pandemic allows it to be scheduled. She promises nationally well-known mycologists, “though the point is to showcase our Utah locals. There are a lot of [growers and teachers] here who don’t get the credit they deserve.”
So you want to grow mushrooms!
Growing mushrooms can be pretty intimidating. Plants seem much more logical, and more friendly—they make seeds you can actually see (most of the time) and grow in expected ways with leaves and branches.
Fungi, on the other hand, are covert and mysterious. Their spores are microscopic. They spread underground, invisibly and silently, then suddenly manifest overnight, sometimes in unexpected places. How do you grow a mushroom? It’s perhaps not as hard as you think.
There are four basic steps to mushroom growing: Sterilization, inoculation, colonization, and fruiting, and literally hundreds of different techniques or “teks”that deal with these in different ways.
The easiest way is to buy a pre-colonized kit. That takes care of the first three steps for you—and that’s an awesome way to get into growing! However, if you want to dig in further, here’s a rough outline:
First, pick a medium to grow your mushrooms on (a “substrate”) and do some kind of sterilization procedure on it.
Then inoculate it with either spores (mushroom “seeds”) or a bit of existing mushroom culture (sort of equivalent to taking a cutting from a plant), and give it time for the fungal roots (mycelium) to grow all through it and colonize it thoroughly. You can buy syringes of liquid culture and spores from many different online shops.
Once this is done, you need to convince the fungus to fruit, i.e. to make actual mushrooms.
Different species have different requirements. Some need more light, some need more fresh air exchange, some prefer more humidity and so forth.
The best “tek”for you is the one you figure out for yourself. Here in Utah, since it’s so dry and we generally don’t have a big mold count, we can often get away with being less rigorous about sterility, but you have to be prepared to laugh off your failures and make friends with the notorious teal-colored Trichoderma mold that is the bane of every mushroom grower.
Here are some resources I found helpful:
Supplies (spores, kits):
Back To The Roots
Field and Forest
The Cultured Mushroom
The Mycelium Emporium
* A note about psychedelic mushrooms: The sale of psychedelic species spores for microscopy purposes only is legal in all states except for Georgia, Idaho and California, hense their availability. It is still, however, a federal offense to actually grow the mushrooms.
Radical Mycology. Peter McCoy
Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms. Paul Stamets:
Useful webpages with affiliated YouTube channels:
Mossy Creek Mushrooms
The Mushroom Hunters (short animated film of poem by Neil Gaiman)
Robin Wall Kimmerer on “Puhpowee”
Fantastic Fungi trailer
So, why do we love mushrooms so much?
At least those of us who have gotten over our cultural mycophobia?
Every mycophile has their own answer, as different as one mushroom species from the next (that is to say, some extremely similar, some radically divergent).
To answer that question for myself: I love mushrooms because they’re so multifarious, and if a kingdom of life could be said to have a personality, they seem to have a sense of humor. They’re jokers, and like a good joke they run underground until they get a chance to pop up like an unexpected punch line.
They keep you off kilter, and make you think a little more deeply, just like good comedy. “Can I eat this? Is it food or poison?”Or, as in the case of my four-year-old self confronted with a basket stinkhorn, “Is this an alien come to invade the Earth and turn us all into goo?!”
There’s a certain bravery mixed with caution you must have when you approach the fungal kingdom. Plants are the straight men, and mushrooms are the tricksters. Puhpowee shoves a shaggy mane mushroom through your asphalt driveway and even though you’re vexed, you have to laugh and marvel at the same time.
So maybe that’s it—they say laughter is the best medicine. People who love mushrooms love their capacity to heal, their utility as food and medicine for both body and mind, and the subtle way they encourage us to network ourselves together.
If we let them, these alien-seeming lifeforms can help us get over our own alienation.
Alice Bain Toler has been writing for CATALYST since 2008, covering a wide variety of subjects. She is also a visual artist: tolerarts.com/alice/