Before Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck and Squirrel Nutkin, there was Clitocybe ampla, Lepiota friesii and Himeola auricula. While Beatrix Potter may be most widely known as the conjurer of beloved characters that have filled and expanded children’s imaginations for centuries, her first love was, in fact, mushrooms. For many Victorian-era illustrators, the fantastical quality of mushrooms was a particular point of fascination, but Potter was as much a naturalist as she was an artist. In Linda Lear’s 2006 biography of the author she writes: “Potter never saw art and science as mutually exclusive activities, but recorded what she saw in nature primarily to evoke an aesthetic response.”
Mushrooms have long inspired us. In great part, because of their very appearance—strange, otherworldly beauties that seem to straddle the plant and animal kingdoms, while at the same time defying our traditional understanding of either. Lewis Carroll elevated the amanita muscaria (a mushroom known to elicit euphoric feelings and hallucinations) to icon status, when he used it to send Alice on her trip to Wonderland. Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane would sing “And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom and your mind is moving low,” reimagining Alice’s trip in musical form. Artists Takashi Murakami and Cy Twombly have both cast mushrooms as subjects of their work, and so has Sylvia Plath in her 1959 poem Mushrooms, which, whether read as feminist allegory or chronicle of nature, remains just as significant.
The mythologies associated with mushrooms for centuries across the world further fuel the fascination: natural, but also supernatural; magical, but also dangerous. A ring of mushrooms was believed to be a magnet for fairies to come to dance and the strike of lightning an opportunity for mushrooms to multiply. They’ve been associated with witchcraft, considered a sign of immortality and longevity, and thought to be a harbinger of death. “Mushrooms are viewed as being mysterious or magical because they literally pop out of nowhere in the blink of an eye,” says Andrea Gentl, a New York-based photographer whose book Cooking with Mushrooms (Artisan) will be published next spring.
To appreciate the mushroom, one must often be willing to seek them out. In one scene from Fantastic Fungi, the wildly popular 2019 Netflix documentary by Louie Schwartzberg, celebrated mycologist Paul Stamets describes how being embarrassed by his childhood stutter forced him to cast his eyes downward; it was in spending so much time staring at the ground that he began to notice and appreciate mushrooms. Composer John Cage was obsessive about mushrooms, and foraging seemed to be an almost meditative practice for him, one that fed his creative process too: looking downward allowing him to look inward. In his 1954 essay Music Lovers’ Field Companion he wrote, “I have come to the conclusion that much can be learned about music by devoting oneself to the mushroom.”
An obsession with mushrooms is no longer considered niche though; in fact, we’re experiencing what is being widely dubbed a “‘shroom boom”. Due to a convergence of climate awareness and an interest in plant-based eating, mushrooms are increasingly popping up on grocery shelves, touted for their nutritional superpowers, and in beauty and wellness products. The possibilities of mushrooms as a sustainable material is already being embraced by designers like London-based Sebastian Cox, who is growing pendant lights from mycelium. Additionally, the healing properties of psilocybin, a naturally occurring psychedelic compound found in fungi, is being widely studied and shows immense promise. At The Alchemist’s Kitchen in New York, founder Lou Sagar reports a dramatic uptick in requests for medicinal mushrooms (Reishi for anxiety; Lion’s Mane for cerebral health; and Chaga and Cordyceps for immunity) among his customers. “It’s part of a growing interest by consumers in options away from the traditional pharmaceutical products on the market,” he adds. Even mushroom burial suits, wearable self-decomposing shrouds created by Jae Rhim Lee, artist and founder of the Infinity Burial Project, are gaining in popularity among those who would prefer to leave no footprint when they pass.
“The honest truth is that people and the environment are driving the surge in interest,” says Adam DeMartino, co-founder of Smallhold, a Brooklyn-based mushroom farm offering home-grow kits that experienced their own pandemic-born boom. “As environmental catastrophe and human ailments seemingly close in, it’s no wonder we look back to the Earth to find a path forward,” he says. “And mushrooms are just like us in many ways. They dominated the landscape of the Earth at one point (in fact, they still do in many ways) surviving a high CO2 environment and ultimately adapting to a climate shaped by plants. They, like us, diversified their survival tactics, and they come in all shapes and sizes.”
That we see so much of ourselves mirrored in mushrooms may be why they’re resonating so broadly right now. Consider how interconnectedness is the very key to their existence. The largest living organism in the world, a fungi (specifically an armillaria ostoyae) in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest, covers more than 2,000 acres, communicates via a sprawling subterranean network of mycelium, and is continually emitting spores that will propagate and proliferate the species. Though there may be even simpler reasons for our current collective mushroom compulsion. They give us hope; believing that something so seemingly small and insignificant can have a transformative power far greater than we could have ever imagined. And they inspire a sense of wonder at a time when we all want—even, need—to believe in magic. They are, as Plath portended in the final stanza of her poem decades ago, the future. “Nudgers and shovers / In spite of ourselves / Our kind multiples / We shall by morning / Inherit the earth / Our foot’s in the door.” What can we learn from mushrooms? “Connection, resiliency, constant iteration, tenacity,” says DeMartino. The better question may be what can’t we learn from them?
Words by Fiorella Valdesolo.
Illustrations by Molly Martin.