When Fairy Tales Come To Life

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Magic mushrooms have a long history in human lore

Mushrooms Of Magic and Mystery

This has been a banner year for mushrooms around here, as the unusually warm fall and abundant autumn rains made for perfect growing conditions. Ever since I first moved to the maritime Northwest, I’ve enjoyed mushroom hunting with knowledgeable friends who taught me to find golden chanterelles, delicious morels with their sponge-like caps, and spicy, pine scented matsutake. We found all these in wooded ares, especially near partner plants like swordfern, huckleberry and rhododendron. My favorite mushroom hunter, Barb, always included a few leaves of such plants in her gathering basket as reminders that they often keep company with specific kinds of mushrooms. Barb learned that, and other mushroomer skills, from an older Japanese American woman who was well known as a matsutake hunter. Buyers would fly in from Japan with special suitcases to carry the matsutke home. Since tight matsutake buds are prized above open ones and brought in top dollar, Mrs. H. taught Barb to lie down on the forest floor at dawn, when the matsutake caps would begin to emerge. The rising buds cast a distinctive shadow and the prompt hunter could carefully remove them intact.

While I’ve rarely seen edible mushrooms in urban areas, I’ve been surprised to see colonies of fly agaric popping up all over my neighborhood in recent years. Amanita muscaria was the first “magic mushroom” I ever met, instantly recognizable from fairy tale illustrations; the bright red caps, sprinkled with white polka dots, were usually pictured with a cute little elf or smiling gnome sitting on top. I first saw them in real life in a Swiss meadow, where my mountain guide said they’ve been prized for millennia by the shamans of northern European and Asia for visionary rituals. She also said they remained popular with hippies, who liked to eat the little white dots for a hallucinogenic experience.

Death or Dreams

Turns out these that these psychoactive mushrooms are what researchers call “cosmopolitan” as they’re native to both coniferous and deciduous woodlands around the entire Northern Hemisphere. In some places, they range south; into the Mediterranean, in higher elevation areas in India and Asia, and even in parts of Central America. All over the world, people have valued these beautiful mushrooms for their mysterious ability to create a sense of new realities, to bring vivid waking dreams, sometimes visionary, sometimes terrifying. Like other magic mushrooms, Amanitas are classified as hallucinogens, intoxicants, and even as entheogens, allowing those who use them to have powerful spiritual experiences. Of course, they’re also deadly poison, so tasters must be very cautious; nature doesn’t deliver carefully measured doses and the amounts of psychoactive elements can vary widely. A little too much and oops, that visit to heaven turns out to be a one way trip.

I suspect that all mushrooms are magical, really; weavers of webs as fine as gossamer, connecting trees with trees and also with shrubs and perennials, and above all, with their own kin. Certain vast fungal networks are the largest known lifeforms on earth; Oregon’s Blue Mountains are home to a honey fungus entity that covers almost 2,500 acres and is estimated to be as much as 8,000 years old. I love the mystery of lichens, which represent a mutually beneficial symbiotic interaction between fungi and algae; algae provide nutrients from chlorophyll pigments that fungi lack, while fungi help algae absorb water. The more we learn about fungi, the more it becomes clear that most fungi are beneficial or harmless to other life forms. I hope that we gardener can help teach others to respect and admire the magic of fungi, starting with our families and friends. If we get a chance, we can try to intervene when folks who don’t know better try to kill off mushrooms in their yards, gardens, and lawns with toxic treatments. Sadly, the treatment is often far worse than the perceived problem, which is most likely a blessing in disguise. Onward, right?

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One Response to When Fairy Tales Come To Life

  1. katy gilmore says:

    In Anchorage they grew always under our birch trees! Lovely writing here as always. Thank you Ann!

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