The Concordia Mycological Society (CMS) concluded its first student-led information session on January 26, and it’s safe to say that more than a few people left like newly minted mushroom heads. The two-part series aimed to “demystify mushrooms,” and while the myths have been dispelled, mushrooms remain as mystical as ever.
Mycological societies have sprung up all over the place in recent years, with members going on foraging expeditions and sharing their passion. Part of the mushroom frenzy could be explained by how quickly the field is growing after a long period of banned or underfunded research. As interest in mushrooms grows, events like CMS Info Sessions are determined to move us from mycophobia to mycophilia.
Environmental science student and presenter Francisca Spedding summed up her interest in mycology, the study of fungi: “When I was studying biology, I discovered how [fungi] are […] and what potential they have. With a shelf of plants in her zoom background basking in solar lamps, she gave an overview of fungi, which weren’t classified differently from plants until the 1960s. In fact, genetic sequencing revealed that the animals are more closely related to fungi than to plants. Spedding explained how fungi can be “difficult to pin down,” ranging from single-celled and invisible to the naked eye, to some of the largest living structures on earth.
What we often think of as fungi are really just the reproductive organs, generating spores so prolific and resilient they can be found inside glaciers, undersea vents, the stratosphere, and even canals. cerebral. But the vast majority of a fungus’ biomass is underground, in networks of mycelium that can move information through an ecosystem so efficiently and expansively that they are now being mapped at large scales. The symbiotic relationship between mycelium and plant roots, called mycorrhiza, form exceptional networks for stabilizing environments and transporting vital nutrients over great distances. How plants communicate through this multi-species network is still under investigation. Eugenio Garza, a student specializing in cellular molecular biology, highlighted another way in which fungi are essential for the survival of our ecosystems. Partly because they are the only major organism capable of breaking down lignin, a component of all vascular plants, fungi are the primary decomposers of plant matter on the planet. By digesting their nutrients from outside, fungi help create and maintain new soil. By offering this key process of the biogeochemical cycle, they are recycling the planet’s limited resources.
Because they are so diverse, fungi can interact with other species in unpredictable ways. In 2016, two species were found to produce cathinone – an amphetamine – and psilocybin – a hallucinogen – in cicadas, sending the insects into a sexual frenzy. Cordyceps, also known as zombie fungus, can be detected by ants, which escort any infected ants away, kill them, and then kill themselves to prevent the colony from becoming infected.
Mycophiles belong to disciplines as diverse as the fungi they study. Meryem Benallal, political science major and co-founder of CMS, explained how to recognize poisonous mushrooms to avoid mycetism (mushroom poisoning), of which there are about 150 cases in Canada each year. Mycetism has a long list of symptoms which can consist of vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach pain, hallucinations, slurred speech and nausea, to such life-threatening symptoms as seizures, coma, destruction of muscle tissue, unquenchable thirst or failure of vital organs. . Although treatment has improved, there is still no proven antidote for mycetism, which in some species can be caused by a single cap. Despite the lack of funding to support these skills, Benallal noted that mushroom identification can be an ongoing quest. Both expert and amateur mycologists can draw on a wealth of experience and information, much of it derived from indigenous peoples and knowledge systems.
Humans have long used mushrooms for healing, such as in psychedelic therapies. Entheogenic mushrooms, discussed by speaker Phillipe Lavoie, are psychoactive mushrooms consumed to produce a mystical or spiritual experience. Psilocybin, the most common entheogen, is found in at least 144 species of fungi. Psilocybin has been linked to neurogenesis and increased neural connections. Participant Aaron Moore used a sledding analogy: It’s easy to fall back into the grooves you’ve already dug in the snow, but psilocybin can provide a new layer of powder. This process can allow the formation of new habits and new patterns of behavior.
Some of the earliest depictions of mushrooms may refer to their entheogenic abilities. Cave paintings in modern Algeria, dating from 7-9 thousand years ago, show a connection of mushrooms to the head – theorized to represent the change in perception they effected on people. In the Americas, many indigenous populations have incorporated psilocybin mushrooms into their culture. A Nahuatl word for entheogenic mushrooms is teonanácatl, literally “divine mushroom”, referring to their ability to bridge the divine and the physical. Following the Spanish invasion of the Triple Alliance and surrounding nations in 1519, first-hand reports from European merchants of the use of entheogenic mushrooms preceded Christian condemnation and punishment of the practice, believing that the visions caused were demonic. This ban drove psychedelic ceremonies underground, and the secret was so closely guarded that among non-Natives in early 20th century Europe and North America, it was believed that reports of the use of native entheogenic mushrooms were just superstition. It wasn’t until 1955 that ethnomycologists Valentina Pavlovna and R. Gordon Wasson traveled to Huautla de Jiménez, Oaxaca, in an attempt to understand the spiritual and medical traditions surrounding mushrooms. A pediatrician, Valentina approached the traditions from a medical point of view and postulated that if the active agent in these mushrooms could be isolated and a supply assured, it could be a vital tool in the study of psychic processes, as well as to help deal with drugs. substance abuse, mental illness and terminal illnesses. The two experienced a traditional ceremony organized by María Sabina, a Mazatec curanderaor Healer, who used psilocybin mushrooms for a medicinal and spiritual experience of purification and the divine called Velada. María’s natural healing ceremonies were vital to her community. With a boom in psychedelics in the 1960s, Huautla de Jiménez received so much tourism that it made police suspect that María Sabina was a drug trafficker. The high traffic of foreign tourists threatened the Mazatec community and, for Sabina, took away the sanctity of medicine. She died in extreme poverty, ostracized and largely unrecognized for her contribution to psychedelic history. It was later revealed that Wasson’s 1956 expedition had been funded by the CIA’s MK Ultra mind control project. In 1971, then-President Richard Nixon signed into law the Controlled Substances Act, calling LSD and psilocybin dangerous, highly addictive, and of no medical benefit, contradicting all previous studies of the substances. As Canada and the UN followed with similarly draconian policies, the psychedelic era came to an end.
Today, entheogens are being researched for use in the treatment of PTSD, depression, substance abuse, end-of-life anxiety, OCD, eating disorders, and Alzheimer’s disease. Special access programs allow healthcare professionals to request certain medications that are generally not prescribeable if conventional treatment is not an appropriate option.
Following an ancient world tradition of using mushrooms in healing, a wide variety of mushrooms apart from psilocybin mushrooms are sought after for medicinal purposes. Hericenones and Erinacins, of Lion’s Mane mushrooms, induce increases of up to 60.6% in the synthesis of nerve growth factor in nerve cells, which are essential for the growth and differentiation of neurons. Cordyceps, long used in Ayurvedic medicine, can be used in the treatment of HIV, due to cordycepin’s stimulating and anti-inflammatory effects, and in 2017 a study found that it can also fight leukemia cells. We could even use mushrooms to protect us from radiation – Cryptococcus neoformans was discovered in 1991 to only thrive in radioactive conditions, unlike other organisms living in spite of themselves. As more species are discovered and more genomes are sequenced, there is incredible potential for new molecules. In addition, metagenomic techniques make it possible to collect genetic material directly from the environment with minimal disturbance to the fungi.
The world of mushrooms is vast and rewarding. You can be part of it by supporting the decriminalization of psilocybin and reasonable drug policy in general. For those interested in ending the stigma of psychedelic use, the Canadian Psychedelic Association conducts research in psychotherapy and seeks to “connect and serve all facets of the psychedelic community and movement in Canada.” Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy “advocates for the decriminalization of drug use and believes that drug use should be a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue.”
For non-Indigenous readers, we can also learn more by respecting Indigenous knowledge systems and acknowledging traditional medicine and First Nations titles in ecosystem management and regulation.
If you want to get involved yourself, find the nearest mycological society and, when conditions allow, you can meet and share a drink, knowledge and go foraging together. CMS, from which all this information has been adapted, thus aims to “contribute to a greener future”. By destigmatizing the use of psilocybin and promoting education about the magical world of mushrooms, we can move from mycophobia to mycotopia.