It is the role of fungi to break things down, to give things back. Fungi is the bowling ball of nature, basic elements are thrown like flying pins into the cosmos. One of the more obvious laws of nature is that existing life must die if new life is to flourish. If there were no vehicle for the disposal of dead matter, we would soon be buried under a blanket of inert matter.
Fungi, along with bacteria, are precisely that vehicle. They are nature’s recyclers. Plants deplete the soil by extracting minerals to manufacture their food. Animals, in turn, devour plants. In feeding on dead (or occasionally living) matter, fungi reduce complex organic compounds to simpler building blocks, thereby enabling plants to re-use then. To associate fungi only with death and decay is to do them an injustice.
In the back of my mother’s copy of Better Homes and Garden’s Illustrated Guide to Gardening, forty pages are dedicated to fungi and their effect on plants. A two page table of fungicides follows. For one called honey fungus, which affects all kinds of woody plants the treatment is to dig up and destroy the diseased plants, and then sterilize the soil using 1 pint of formaldehyde in 6 gallons of water per square yard of soil. This irrational fear of fungi is by no means a universal trait. The media and medical profession have done their part to perpetuate it, but they are certainly not responsible for its origin.
To a large extent, we inherited our fungophobia from the British. It is so deep and intense a prejudice that it amounts to a national superstition. All mushrooms are lumped together in one sweeping condemnation. They are considered vegetable vermin only make to be destroyed. Children are taught from earliest infancy to despise, loathe and avoid all kinds of “toadstools.” Tolken’s whimsical hobbits and their passion for mushrooms was completely counter to the national more.
Mushrooms are the fleshy fruiting body of a fungus, the reproductive structure of a fungus. They perpetuate their species by disseminating spores from the gills on the underside of the mushroom cap. Millions of spores are produced in the lining of the gills and when released, carried on air current to new localities. Though they lack the sexual organs of plants and animals, mushrooms reproduce sexually. That is, genes are combined so that offspring are not genetically identical to parents.
Mushroom hunting became all the rage in the mid-sixties as Hippies explored alternative earthly pleasures. Magic mushrooms exploded into the underground and were cultivated in dung filled aquariums in basements nationwide. A informative book on this subject is “Mushroom Cultivator: A Practical Guide to Growing Mushrooms at Home” by Paul Stamets.
Psilocybin, the hallucinative element in mushrooms is present in many species of Psilocybe, commonly called “Dung Smooth Cap”. Many people consider these species to be edible and seek them out for recreational use as hallucinogens. The symptoms of psilocin poisoning appear one hour after ingestion and consist of alterations in mood and hallucinations followed by sleep.
Pananelous Subbalteatus is considered poisonous because it was responsible for a case of poisoning in which five people nearly died. It contains psilocybin and is hallucinogenic. The cap is 2-5 cm broad, obtusely conic, dark reddish brown when moist and has a mild taste and odor. The gills are broad , close and mottled at maturity. It is especially abundant in well-manured gardens, on spent mushroom compost and on manure piles. It is common and widely distributed, and fruits during the spring and early summer as a rule. Unlike many of the fungi containing psilocybin this species has fruiting bodies that do not stain blue.
Psathyrella foenisecii, “Haymaker’s Mushroom” contains the right stuff as well. This is the lawn species that toddlers find and eat. The danger lies in the fact that we have 400-plus species of this genus in North America and we know little of their chemistry. At least one case of serious poisoning in a child has been linked to this species. It is cosmopolitan and abundant on gold courses across the continent. The stalk is very slender and fragile, the cap is 1-3 cm broad, the gills are dark cocoa brown to grayish brown when mature. There is no veil.
Possession of any material containing psilocybin or psilocin is illegal; permits for possession must be obtained from the Federal Drug Enforcement Administration.