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Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms

Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms by Eugenia Bone. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Books; 2011. Hardcover; 368 pages. ISBN: 978-1605294070. $25.99.

Mycophilia is in essence a very personal and colorful topical travel guide. It is written in an informal, conversational style, laced generously with personal anecdotes and opinions of the author, as well as thoughts about experiences she had during fungi forays, conferences, and interviews. What came to mind after reading through the book was a subtitle for it: “A Field Guide to the Wacky World of Mushroom Nerds and the Fungi They Love.”

The book is divided into 12 chapters, starting with details of the author’s travels through the world of mycologists and mycological conferences. These gatherings are not research-focused, droll, and erudite meetings reporting on the latest taxonomy based on alignment of DNA sequences, but rather colorful and eclectic gatherings of mushroom lovers. Her book is bountifully laced with stories and quotes from figures of note such as University of Wisconsin-La Crosse biologist, Tom Volk; pre-eminent fungophile Paul Stamets of Fungi Perfecti; and Gary Lincoff of the New York Botanical Garden.

The author forays into the world of mushrooms and describes them as important components of the forest ecology, as well as what they eat, who eats them; and their microscopic interactions with other organisms, such as the mycorrhizal associations with trees and many other plants. The topic of mycorrhizal interactions and fungal endophytes living between the cells of plant leaves is a highly active and fascinating area of scientific research, and Bone introduces the reader to these topics with flair.

Throughout the book, the author documents and tells tall tales about people who collect mushrooms for a living on the “mushroom trail.” These individuals live below the radar in the woods and travel extensively collecting “non-timber forest products” in the Western US and other far-flung places. It is an interesting social phenomenon based on a seasonal nomadic lifestyle.

Further chapters explore mushroom cultivation, including the author’s personal experience with kitchen-counter cultivation, the allure and excitement of morel hunting, truffle hunting and eating, truffle products and marketing, and more information than one could hope for on the world of button mushrooms, Agaricus bisporus (Agaricaceae)—the world’s most cultivated fungus—as well as the straw mushroom and others. In later chapters, Bone writes about the nutritional and medicinal value of mushrooms in the diet and as nutraceutical products, again interspersed with personal stories offered as an unabashed “mushroom groupie.” She reports on the healing properties of mushrooms, including the cultural uses of mushrooms as medicine, with a brief review of some of the latest scientific research, focusing on some of the major species such as shiitake (Lentinula edodes, Marasmiaceae), reishi (Ganoderma lucidum, Ganodermataceae), and cordyceps (Cordyceps spp., Clavicipitaceae). As is the nature of this book, the practical details are blended with stories about the history, people, and places from which, whom, and where the practical uses of fungi are taught.

A book about the world of mushroom lovers would hardly be complete without some discussion of fungi as mind-altering substances, e.g., psylocybin mushrooms (Psilocybe spp., Strophariaceae), mushrooms in shamanistic practice (Amanita muscaria, Amanitaceae), and their use in popular Western cultures today. Bone does not neglect this popular topic, devoting a chapter titled “Shrooms” to a narrative on some of the history, lore, and modern research on the benefits and potential dangers of hallucinogenic fungi. Psilocybin mushrooms were outlawed for legitimate scientific study until only recently, but new research now shows that ingesting them can make positive and lasting changes to one’s personality, engendering a positive and more philosophical outlook on life. She closes the book with a look at mushrooms for bioremediation of toxic sites, as a producer of biofuels, and other useful technologies—an area pioneered by Stamets et al.

Mycophilia doesn’t include recipes for those interested in fungi from a culinary standpoint, and it isn’t a reference guide to help one identify various useful fungi. The book does not provide practical details about how to prepare mushrooms for medicine, for instance how to make tinctures, teas, or other extracts. Neither does it take much of an in-depth view of the biology or systematics of the Kingdom Fungi. Some details about mushroom biology and the uses of mushrooms are woven throughout the text, but retrieving specific information is difficult, because the book is not ordered or referenced in such a way that would facilitate its easy access. Many of the references given in the extensive “Notes” section for each chapter are secondary or even tertiary sources—books and magazine articles that draw from either the primary or secondary literature. The author also includes references to conversations she recorded from mushroom researchers and “mushroom heads.” To her credit, Bone does cite some relevant primary literature, though these articles are not always easy to connect with particular statements in the text.

Mycophilia is not a reference guide to access practical information about how to use fungi as food or medicine. It is a great book to take with you on a vacation or to a hot springs (where I am writing this). Full of colorful stories of colorful people who have helped bring the idea of beneficial fungi to a broader popular audience, it makes a relaxing and interesting read, especially if you like a warm, conversational, and personal style.

–Christopher Hobbs

Doctoral Candidate, Department of Integrative Biology

University of California, Berkeley