The Planet

The Book Radical Mycology Showcases the Amazing Power of Mushrooms

by DJ Pangburn

February 9, 2016

A decade ago, Peter McCoy and Maya Elson founded Radical Mycology, a decentralized, collaborative network of fungi enthusiasts. The idea was to create a place where people could share information on the cultivation of mushrooms and fungi, not only for food, but also for healthy living and environmental cleanup. Since the Radical Mycology blog’s inception, it has grown by leaps and bounds, with McCoy and others traveling around the country to spread their knowledge. McCoy’s new book, Radical Mycology: A Treatise on Seeing & Working With Fungi, runs over 700 pages, transforming his digital warehouse of fungal information into an all-encompassing tome on this many-spored subject.

The original intent of the book was to expand on the Radical Mycology website’s efforts to champion mushrooms as a source of food, medicine, and bioremediation (environmental cleanup). But when McCoy began undertaking additional research, he soon realized there was still a lot left to say about fungi, and the book became a compendium of information on the organisms and how they interact with other parts of the world. McCoy digs into the mushroom’s role in history, culture, science, and the environment, among many other topics.  

From the book: An illustration of mycorrhizae, which form symbiotic relationships with plants at the root level. Seven recognized types are differentiated primarily by the structures they form in the plant’s root. They can be used to enhance food production and the medicinal and nutritional qualities of plants.

“There is a chapter on [fungi] identification, a chapter on lichens, including on how to understand their ecology for citizens of science but also for environmental monitoring in polluted areas,” McCoy tells GOOD. “The biggest chapter is on indoor cultivation followed by outdoor cultivation, which is very heavily influenced by permaculture. There is a whole chapter on remediation, but not just little projects like digesting cigarette butts, which is one of the videos I made promoting the Indiegogo campaign, but going really into the science of what the fungi are doing when they’re breaking down chemicals, and what they can and cannot do.”

McCoy adds, “There’s a lot in there, even some protocols, tips and techniques, so that even if you live in the smallest apartment and [have the] smallest of budgets, you’re still going to be able to grow some mushrooms.” 

In the food chapter, entitled “The Spores of Life,” McCoy covers how to cook and preserve many fungus-based foods. This includes recipes like Black Trumpet Mushroom and Nettle Quiche, Fried Chicken-of-the-Woods Sandwich, and Chanterelle Apple Pie. This chapter also deals with fermented fungus foods like miso, Roquefort cheese, sake, and kombucha, amongst others.

Peter McCoy

“These fungal-dominant ferments (as opposed to the bacteria-dominant ferments of sauerkraut, kimchi, etc.) are not as commonly made at home,” McCoy explains. “This is partially due to their unfamiliarity to most people but also due to the fact that in order to make them, you have to buy the spores, adding cost and time. In Radical Mycology, I detail the best practices for growing fermenting fungi and perpetuating cultures so that the spores never need to be purchased again.”

As for the “healthy living” benefits of fungi, McCoy explores mushrooms that can do things like help fight cholesterol, such as the oyster mushroom. While the practice of using mushroom extracts as medicine is common in Asian countries, Western scientific research in this arena is relatively recent. A University of Florida study, for instance, found that people whose regular diet included shiitake mushrooms showed increased immunity. In another study, maitake mushrooms were found to boost the immune system in breast cancer patients.

McCoy: “These two liquid cultures started out the same color. The species on the right, pioppino (Agrocybe aegarita), produces a dark exudate that colors the liquid and has medicinal properties.”

“[A] point I make in the medicine chapter is that there is now clear and convincing evidence that many of the medicinal properties of plants can actually be attributed to the endophytic fungi that live inside of plants,” McCoy says. “This radically changes the history of medicine to one that has potentially been a fungal-based one for much of its history.”

An important part of the Radical Mycology book is its focus on mycoremediation, in which fungi absorb and neutralize contaminants in the environment. The process is a fascinating way to deal with pollutants and mitigate their effects, but much of our knowledge of this method comes from laboratories rather than fieldwork. In McCoy’s experience, because people don’t know much about fungi—from cultivation to ecology—fieldwork is not well designed and often doesn’t take into consideration fungal limits.

Oyster mushrooms eat cigarette butts.

“To produce the proper digestive/remediative enzymes, [fungi] need to have a ‘balanced diet’ that provides adequate carbon, nitrogen, and minerals to enable their enzymes to work,” McCoy tells GOOD. “What I did with the bioremediation chapter is unlike any other writings on the topic … It’s the most technical chapter. I tried to make it accessible for those people without the chemistry background.”

He continues, “One technique I was pretty excited about is the way that you can grow the mycelium [the vegetative part of a fungus] in a liquid and extract medicine out of that, through the exact same process fungi [use to] exude their digestive enzymes. So you apply those enzymes directly to chemicals.” McCoy notes that “the benefit is you don’t have to worry about keeping the fungus alive, which is really hard to do in a [bioremediation] installation. If water is contaminated, especially with a chemical, it’s actually one of the hardest things to remediate industrially and biologically, so by extracting these enzymes and incorporating them into contaminated water, you can reduce the contamination.”

A two-tiered microbial filtration system, designed by McCoy, being installed in Western Massachusetts. The target pollutant was effluent overflowing from an antiquated septic system. The mushrooms being installed are the king stropharia and phoenix oyster.

Toward the end of the book, a chapter details how mycelial networks mimic social networks. Like social networks, fungi are information-gathering systems, sharing information about themselves and the environment around them. Through mycelium, which form a mass of thin underground threads, fungi connect to various plants, allowing the sharing of nutrients, elements like carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus, and the dissemination of toxins that can neutralize unwanted plant growth. The book applies this networking metaphor to the Radical Mycology Collective’s own fungi-information-sharing system, the Mycelial Network, where decentralized groups share tips for local projects.

The final chapter digs into psychoactive fungi, such as psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”) and Amanita muscaria. McCoy found other books on this subject to be thin on hard information, so he wanted to create a more comprehensive study of psychoactive mushrooms. “There was a lot of cultural importance placed on especially Amanita muscaria, the red-and-white mushroom,” McCoy says.

From the book: An illustration of Xylaria hypoxylon, a wood-decaying fungus that is also a symbiont that lives inside of plants. When the plant dies or becomes weakened, this species takes over and decomposes the plant from the inside out.

The book also features a story game designed by McCoy’s friend Jackson Tegu. Set in a postapocalyptic future where humans are few and fungi are many, it features mushrooms working together to clean up the environment. Every player in the game is part of the mycelial network, working with prompts and cards toward the task of ecological cleanup. The story game can be found in the book’s appendix, but Tegu and Radical Mycology will also offer an online version, available as a free download on their respective websites.

To publish Radical Mycology, McCoy set up Chthaeus Press, a publishing company. Right now they’re not offering the book for sale on Amazon, but instead trying to support independent publishers and brick-and-mortar bookstores. It is, like Radical Mycology’s Mycelial Network, just another aspect of the collective’s overarching strategy—getting information to people in a local, decentralized way, just like a mushroom.

All images courtesy of Peter McCoy

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The Book Radical Mycology Showcases the Amazing Power of Mushrooms