Nature’s Magic Ingredient
Never Forget Your Roots
All life has been categorised into smaller boxes by the overbearing intelligence and capacity that humans have come to possess. Simply for our convenience and crippling curiosity to understand this world, we write off discoveries onto yellowing pages of old books. However, some things must remain mysterious, otherwise how can we quench our ceaseless curiosity?
Surviving the planet for over thousands of years, since the dawn of time, mushrooms have contributed to the growth and development of our earth in their own space. These special beings, so utterly unique, baffled the scientists whose entire purpose was to make sense of things. In the end, they were forced to derive a completely new branch to study the newly discovered, yet historically significant organism, but this was just the beginning.
Mushrooms, or toadstools, are fungi, belonging to a kingdom of their own, distinct from both plants and animals. They are classified as the fleshy, fruiting body (sporophore) of a much larger fungus that grows underneath the soil (mycelium). Mycelium, simply put, is a network of threads from which fungi like mushrooms sprout. Mycelium or hyphae are dubbed as the heroes of the earth, contributing to healthy soil life, agricultural production, and toxin breakdown. Not to mention acting as a food source, directly for insects and invertebrates, and indirectly for any living being who has a taste for mushrooms.
There are over fourteen thousand species of mushrooms, each of them having various life purposes. Just how vital is their existence?
Making History Under The Influence
Although some species of mushrooms have been serving as food for ages, not all of them are edible. A few are even toxic and harmful to health, while some others are, for lack of a better word, ‘magical’.
Psilocybin is a drug compound produced by more than two hundred species of fungi, infamously also known as, ‘magic mushrooms’. They possess the power to affect and alter the senses, causing a person to lose the sense of time, place and emotions. For thousands of years, it has been utilised for ceremonial, religious, medical, and recreational purposes. Through this, they have peculiarly contributed to the development of science and philosophy.
In Ancient Greece, it is said that famous figures like Homer, Plato, and Aristotle attended secret ceremonies where a hallucinogenic mixture including a combination of hallucinogenic mushrooms was produced.
In the field of science, Kary Mullis, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1993 for significantly enhancing the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology, claimed to be experimenting with LSD and the "mind-opening experiences" it brought eventually contributed to his Nobel Prize-winning discoveries.
Timothy Leary, an American psychologist, when discovering his love for psilocybin mushrooms claimed that he had learnt more about the possibilities of the brain in 5 hours of the drug’s consumption than he had in the past 15 years of his life spent researching psychology.
In these ways, mushrooms that look ever so simple, have influenced humans to such an extent that it has led to a better understanding of our complex selves.
You Cannot Kill Me In A Way That Matters
“All things that live, die.” Although it is unfair, Joe Kelly, not everything under the sun complies with this rule of Mother Nature. Mushrooms are theoretically eternal. Mycelia that have grown continuously for thousands of years may occur in undisturbed areas and continue to sprout at the hyphal tips as long as conditions are favourable. The mushroom of immortality, also known as "reishi" in Japanese and "lingzhi" in Chinese, is widely used to treat everything from the flu to cancer. Though its lifespan is said to be around six months, it is not regarded as the mushroom of longevity for no reason. It is a “herb of spiritual potency,” symbolising success, well-being and divine power. Reishi/lingzhi has been mentioned as a supplement used to promote human health since 100 B.C.
Mushrooms are undeniably an extant form of life, given how some even possess immortality, their persistence and right to life surpass everything else. So much so that psilocybin mushrooms are used to treat patients with existential anxiety in life-threatening situations like terminal illnesses, especially end-stage cancer.
Psychedelic therapy also makes use of psilocybin to ease distress in victims suffering from PTSD, chronic depression, suicidal tendencies and addictions.
Not only do they make an excellent culinary element that is quite varied and has multiple uses in the kitchen but also yield antibiotics, and have antitumor and immunostimulant properties in the field of medicine.
Apart from being a subject of great interest in science, mushrooms have also sparked the attention of writers, particularly in fiction. The presence of mushrooms that produce mood shifts and hallucinations has helped inspire many stories, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring and the American TV sensation Hannibal being only a few instances in a vast sea of such occurrences. Capturing the imagination of famous fashion designers, mushrooms have made their way to the red carpet in the past few seasons. Not only as patterns on cloth but also as a fabric material. According to Stella McCartney, mushroom fabrics, ‘have the potential to ultimately replace traditional leather… and provide hope for the future of our planet.’ Several memes have originated through mushrooms, thanks to them being such an inexplicable existence, and various games have been made involving them, our very own Super Mario for example.
Can Mushrooms Save The World?
Ultimately, the potential of mushrooms knows no bounds. The fact that there are books written on how mushrooms can help save the planet speaks for itself. Keeping aside food and medicine, there remain numerous uses for mushrooms.
Oyster mushrooms are renowned for their voracious appetite; they can and will consume anything that comes their way. Wood, paper, coffee grinds, petroleum byproducts, and even plastic! They act as decomposers of plastic in landfills and help in clearing up oil spills.
Apart from breaking down organic (and inorganic) material, mushrooms can also act as a building material, and biodegradable packaging, while also protecting from radiation and destroying pollutants. For all of the harm being done to our earth, it appears that mushrooms can provide a cure.
Mushrooms, as strange as they may appear, can assist us in transitioning to a world that works with, rather than against nature, by emulating natural events to suit our human requirements.
They take in life to give more than twice their size. Like trees, their sole purpose seems to be to help other living beings, and like animals, they rely on other life forms to survive. Yet they are neither plant nor animal, selflessly living somewhere on their own.