Life is full of little mysteries and surprises. Sometimes you think you have it all figured out, only to realize you were completely under the wrong impression.
This was just the case for a family in England in 1779. Nothing more interesting than a simple breakfast. A simple breakfast that would go down in history. The same breakfast they had most every morning. Dad liked to go for a walk to gather some mushrooms and bring them home and grill them up. But this morning didn’t go like everyone expected. This time breakfast went a bit sideways.
I bet you can guess what happened next. The oldest son was the first to exhibit symptoms. He really liked mushrooms ... and apparently giggling, lots of giggling. Because these weren’t exactly the same mushrooms that they were used to eating — nope — these mushrooms were “magical.” And after a very weird day in which a local doctor tried some normal things and some rather crazy things to try and “fix” his family of patients they eventually came back to their senses. Dr. Evard Brande’s journal entry became the very first written account of the effects of psychedelic mushrooms.
Mushroom are amazing. We often enjoy them in our food, adding their smokey-umami flavors to everything from spaghetti sauce to truffle fries. But what we are overlooking is just how unique they truly are; and just like a giggling family in the 18th century, we are mistaken about these guys in a big way.
First and foremost, mushrooms are not a plant. Understand, I’m not saying they aren’t a fruit or vegetable, or that they aren’t a berry or nut — I’m saying they are not a plant at all. In fact, mushrooms are more closely related to an insect than a plant. That’s right; mushrooms contain chitin in their cell walls, which they share in common with insects and no one else. That’s amazing, isn’t it? When you eat a mushroom you are eating something more akin to an ant than an asparagus. But, it goes further. Mushrooms are actually more closely related to humans than to plants. That sounds ridiculous, after all a mushroom can’t run or jump or even growl when you step on it… all things we expect from the creatures more closely related to us. But, the discovery of Lanosterol and its role in both animals and mushrooms is what truly sealed the deal. Our family ties are much closer to the mushroom than those of any plant.
Also interesting, while most of us are aware that mushrooms grow both above and below the surface of the earth, that too creates some mystery. In fact, the mushroom is not just the cute little fairy house we see on the surface, but is made of threads called mycelium which we now know are threaded throughout the ground and create an information and transportation network throughout the soil. This network is a whole world of communication and a highway for food and water. Trees share nutrients with one another and support one another when under attack. Some plants will sabotage neighbors if they find their growth threatening, but they also will defend and support neighbors when they choose. And that’s another thing we realized — plants are, in fact, communicating and making choices. So far the decisions seem fairly small, but choices are being made by plants and mushrooms, and the mushroom internet is where we can observe those choices in action.
Another surprise? It is now supposed that the world was first populated by mushrooms and then by plants, and part of the reasoning is the discovery of massive fossilized mushrooms. The largest and oldest thus far is 350 million years old and located in Saudi Arabia. And researchers say it appears that there were thousands of years in which giant mushrooms dotted the earth without trees and chlorophyll; a world with a completely different landscape and ecosystem.
While we are learning new facts, how about the largest living organism on the earth… yep — that too is a mushroom. Armillaria ostoyae, the world’s largest living mushroom, is actually located in Oregon. It covers 2,385 acres and is only as thick as a single cell in places. It is both striking in that it is huge, and also incredibly thin.
It is also interesting to note that mushrooms are proving to be an ecological solution to all sorts of pollution. Biohazards, petroleum and chemical waste all have proven to be completely mitigated by the introduction of certain mushroom spores. Within days of spore introduction the chemical waste begins to dissolve and grow communities of mushrooms … after the growth of mushrooms there is an infiltration of insects and grubs, followed by birds and plant seeds and within weeks a wasteland becomes an oasis. It makes sense as we now recognize that mushrooms are creating the haven above and underground that causes ecosystems to thrive.
Finally, the funny psychedelic effects. It is interesting to note that it wasn’t until the 1950s that Americans became aware that there even were psychedelic effects to mushrooms. Psilocybin is the hallucinogenic and euphoric chemical that seems responsible for the effects of the mushrooms. While there was a brief interest in possible medical uses Timothy Leary began his research, and he did with mushrooms what he did with all other psychedelics, which was, ruin the subject for everyone. Soon they were simply another illegal controlled substance.
Today there is a bit of renewed interest on the subject of potential medical uses for psilocybin and the research is showing a lot of potential. It appears that many psychological issues can be positively impacted by the use of these “magic mushrooms;” most significantly, compulsive disorders. Those folks who need to repeatedly wash hands or count by threes or other similar compulsions have had these impulses completely disappear with the use of mushrooms. Mushrooms have also been proven to be non-addictive; both because the hallucinogenic and euphoric effects disappear rapidly with repeated use, and for some reason not yet understood, they don’t seem to create a craving within the user.
What else might we learn from these odd, alien creatures living with us? Posing as sneaky plants, but proving to be more an imobile insect? Who knows. But, much like a big familial giggle fit in the 18 century, we are realizing they are full of surprises.
Twyla Righter is a native of Western Colorado. She is the mother of three children bent on world domination (they have pie charts) and a proud CASA advocate. She writes two columns for the Press as well authoring the definitive guide to a horrible pregnancy: “About That Pregnancy Glow.” Righter’s “Outside the box” “Outside the box” column appears every other Friday in the Montrose Daily Press.