Let's Reminisce: The importance of mushrooms
By Jerry Lincecum
Mar 18, 2019
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One of the many mysteries I was curious about as a child was toadstools (mushrooms).  In old fairy tales, toads are often depicted sitting on mushrooms and catching, with their tongues, the unwary flies that are attracted. Around our farm the mushrooms seemed to crop up suddenly for no reason--right in the middle of a cow patty, maybe, and before long they would disappear.  Still curious, recently I was interested to find a book about the science of mushrooms, and I bought a copy.


Before plunging into a book, I like to check out the title page and other prefatory items, and this one has an unusual declaration: The information in this book is accurate to the best of the author’s knowledge.  However, neither the author nor the publisher can accept any responsibility for mistakes in identification or idiosyncratic reactions to mushrooms; people who eat mushrooms do so at their own risk.


Having been warned as a child that toadstools were poison, I wouldn’t have dared to eat one then, but nowadays I enjoy mushrooms (the white button variety) with steak.  Clearly the author of this book and his publisher wanted to make sure they couldn’t be sued for a million dollars by people who claimed their book led them to eat a poisonous mushroom.


The book also has a Foreword, which amounts to an endorsement, by Andrew Weil, the celebrity doctor who is an author, spokesperson, and broadly described "guru" of alternative medicine.  The book’s author, Paul Stamets, has become a celebrity in his own right as an advocate of what he calls myco-remediation, which is the use of mushrooms to treat certain illnesses (including cancer) and also to restore natural environments that have been heavily damaged or destroyed.


But let’s start with some basic facts about mushrooms. Stamets begins his book with a startling claim: “There are more species of fungi, bacteria and protozoa in a single scoop of soil than there are species of plants and animals in all of North America.”  Mushrooms are fungi, and thus they are the great recyclers of our planet, which is also to say they are the interface between life and death.


Look under any log that has been lying on the ground a while and you will see fuzzy, cobweb-like growths which can become building blocks for mushrooms. They unlock nutrients stored in plants to build soils.  Their activities can help heal and restore damaged ecosystems, passing nutrients through the food chain.


But what about the medicinal uses?  In this country the forest-dwelling Native American tribes discovered the medicinal value of mushrooms as they gathered various fungi for food and observed positive effects resulting from their consumption.  For example there was one polyphore mushroom gathered in the Pacific Northwest that once held the record as the largest known variety (weighing as much as 600 pounds).


Unfortunately, as loggers cut down the old-growth forests, many mushrooms lost their foothold in the ecosystem.  Nevertheless, Stamets has done enough research to obtain a dozen patents for the remedial uses of mushrooms, including one issued last year for antiviral activity from medicinal mushrooms.  If you share my curiosity about this subject, look up Paul Stamets in Wikipedia to obtain more information.


Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: