highsnobiety-shroom-boom_1
Highsnobiety / Anna Hofmann

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It’s late on a sunny Friday in September and a gaggle of Brooklynites are milling in front of a bunch of old warehouses in South Williamsburg. They’re not here for a sneaker drop or a capsule collection; they’ve come to claim a plastic bag containing a big, white block of mush. That mush is a combination of sawdust and mycelium, the mysterious fungal filaments that work like roots — and like a brain.

Each one of these people is a budding fungus farmer. They’ll take their mush block home, cut a few tiny slits in it, and store it somewhere out of direct sunlight. With a few spritzes of water and a little airflow, this weird white block will burst forth with blue oyster mushrooms (which you might find on a rotting log on the forest floor) or spout out lion’s mane mushrooms (a strange, furry-looking mushroom that weirdly tastes like crab cakes).

This Friday fungus block party is thrown by Smallhold, an edible mushroom grower which has undergone explosive growth in recent years. In 2017, they were growing out of a shipping container in an old Williamsburg factory and selling wholesale to in-the-know chefs. But when the pandemic hit and restaurants closed down, they had to get creative, and the resulting at-home growth kits became a surprise hit. Today, they’ve moved into a full-blown warehouse where they maintain five climate-controlled mushroom chambers in an area they have gnomically named “the courtyard.” They have two more farms near Austin, Texas, (one for growing, one for experimenting) and a big one in Los Angeles. They’ve partnered with Whole Foods and raised $25 million in series A funding. Their homepage reads, “Speciality mushrooms: The produce of our times.”

There’s truth to that claim. Smallhold’s success is a part of (and response to) a much larger shroom boom shaking the culture. From food to fashion and whatever comes between, mycology — the study of fungi — seems to be popping up everywhere. Stella McCartney’s SS22 campaign was called “Fashion Fungi.” Brands are putting mushrooms on their clothes and, in some cases, making clothes from mushrooms. Joe Rogan hawks mushroom coffee, and The Weeknd sings about mushroom tea. Björk made a whole mushroom album. There’s a bevy of research into mushroom treatments, from the most basic wellness applications to potential cures for alcoholism and Alzheimer’s. By some estimates, the global mushroom market will be worth more than $115 billion by 2030.

Myco-mania may have taken off during lockdown, but the forces behind it go well beyond the pandemic. Mushrooms are sporing in the public consciousness because a host of factors have converged: technological breakthroughs, environmental crises, a psychedelic renaissance, and, above all, the strange, mysterious nature of mushrooms themselves. These weird little fungi resist our understanding yet inspire intense devotion. They may not just be the produce but the organism of our time, one with the capacity to change not only how we eat, but how we think and live.

***

Fungi are everywhere — they’re all around you and inside you. Some are microscopic, some cover entire forests. They decompose waste, create new life, and form symbiotic relationships with different lifeforms all over the planet, humans very much included. They’ve been around for at least 1 billion years, but the scientific community only recognized them as their own biological kingdom distinct from plants in the 1960s. For all they do on the planet, we know shockingly little about them and how they function. Only 6 to 8 percent of the fungal species in the world have been identified.

Mushrooms are the fruiting body of fungi, the face of the mycelial kingdom. For all the functions fungi perform — running through the earth and other organisms — we see mushrooms, the little things that spring out from nature. We can grow them, pick them, and most of all, pop them in our mouths.

When people think of mushrooms, they often think of food first. And when they think of mushrooms as food, they usually think of buttons: white or brown, cremini or portobello — it’s all one thing, really. Smallhold and mushroom farms like them are out to change that by bringing a wider range of fungi to market: blue and yellow oysters, maitake, trumpets. All these mushrooms have their own flavor profiles and properties, and their growing popularity is giving mushrooms a new prominence as a meat alternative and an important food in their own right.

There are also plenty of exciting chefs and foodies who are pushing mushrooms forward in their cuisine and the public consciousness. Chef Clark Barlowe made his name serving wild mushrooms at North Carolina’s Heirloom in creative new ways (like ice cream) before moving to Oregon, the mushroom capital of the US. Sophia Roe, a chef and James Beard Award–winning food journalist, uses her platform and her show Counter Space to discuss how mushrooms can teach all of us to eat more mindfully.

Food is only part of the shroom boom, though. People don’t just eat mushrooms for nutrition; they eat them for a range of health benefits, too. “Functional mushrooms” are any mushroom that offer health benefits beyond their baseline nutritional value. They have an ancient history — traditional Chinese herbalism has long made use of mushrooms — but within the broader shroom boom, the world is reexamining the ways fungi can help us be healthier.

Rainbo is a Canadian company that specializes in functional mushrooms. Its founder, Tonya Papanikolov, a trained nutritionist, wanted to bring the benefits and culture of mushrooms to a wider audience — or as Rainbo’s mission statement puts it, “to upgrade humanity with fungi.” Papanikolov explains how “there are so many ways that humans can not only learn from them but partner with them.” To that end, Rainbo offers a bevy of tinctures featuring the superstars of the functional mushroom gallery. Reishi has been used for thousands of years to boost the immune system and fight stress and fatigue. Lion’s mane is a nootropic supplement that improves cognitive function, with some studies showing it to be a promising treatment for those with Alzheimer’s.

Speaking of changing minds, psychedelic mushrooms have a big role to play in the wellness space. For some years now, a psychedelic renaissance has been underway. From the massive popularity of Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind to the groundswell of interest in psychedelic therapies, the culture is embracing mind-altering substances with more vision and verve than at any moment since the 1960s. Psilocybin is a huge part of this; magic mushrooms have received a notable amount of dedicated legislation, research investment, and media coverage. Though they are still illegal in much of the world, new research and shifting attitudes around psychedelics are, in turn, shifting attitudes around psilocybin. Studies from Johns Hopkins and NYU have shown that shrooms can effectively treat a number of mental health issues such as depression, PTSD, and alcoholism.

The most extraordinary work in modern mushrooms, however, revolves not around what they can do for our bodies but what we can use them to make. Incredibly, people are building things with fungi. Mushrooms have the potential to be a viable, sustainable alternative to plastic. A lot of what’s getting produced is unsexy — packaging, building materials — but it’s often the unsexy parts of the supply chain that have the biggest environmental impact. In that spirit, IKEA made an early commitment to transitioning to mushroom-based packaging materials.

And, of course, mushrooms are being used to create some undeniably cool shit. Manufacturers are using mycelium to create leather in the same way they’d make shipping containers. That leather is popping up more and more in the fashion world as functional garments and accessories. Eco-friendly streetwear brand EDEN Power Corp categorizes its whole product page as “FUNGUS yeasts, molds and mushrooms.” In addition to their recycled cotton hats, shirts, and sweats, they sell planters and wine coolers made from mycelium. Most amazing of all, they sell an “amadou” hat, a traditional tulip-shaped cap from Transylvania. It has a spongy texture because it’s completely made from mushrooms.

Bigger brands are getting in on mushroom-wear, too. Even before Stella McCartney’s fungal SS22 campaign, she had been looking into ways to make mushroom clothes. She announced that she was partnering with Mylo leather in 2021, and she made a bag from the stuff this summer. McCartney has always been at the forefront of vegan and sustainable fashion, so she’s a logical early adopter. It may be more significant that Hermès made a version of its Victoria bag from a mycelial leather, or that adidas released a mushroom-based version of the Stan Smith.

Mushrooms plainly have a lot to offer. To a large extent, that’s always been true, though (barring the technological breakthroughs that have allowed us to turn them into handbags) something else has pushed fungi forward; there’s a reason why they’re popping up everywhere. And as much as it has to do with wider cultural movements, something about fungi is speaking to a deeper, human thing. “We can look to them for inspiration,” says Papanikolov. “There’s so much healing to be done. We need new solutions and things that can truly change our minds.” That inspiration is plain in the way people all over the world aren’t just getting into mushrooms — they’re going crazy for them.

***

Like most of us in the spring of 2021, Adam Whyte just wanted to get outside. After a dark winter and a long year of lockdown, everyone needed a fix of nature. Whyte got his with a trip upstate. “One day I went on a hike in the Catskills and I was surrounded by orange, purple, red,” Whyte says. “The amount of different species of mushrooms around me was insane.”

Whyte is a photographer by trade; most of his work explores a “post-Internet, contemporary context.” On this day, though, he was immediately taken by the urge to shoot the shrooms, something decidedly outside his typical focus. “I just started shooting every single thing — trying to capture their whimsical, otherworldly character within their natural setting,” he says. “After that one hike, I started to dabble in foraging cultures.”

Describing his foray into the world of mushrooms, it becomes apparent that Whyte’s dabble was an understatement. The hike and impromptu photoshoot almost instantly grew into something much bigger. He read books and watched documentaries. He tapped into online forums, both the obvious channels on Reddit and the stranger corners of the Internet, where he encountered “folks that are in their forties, fifties, sixties who aren’t really in the social media sphere of mushrooms, but are more, like, obsessed with planning foraging walks in the forests of upstate New York when chanterelles or morels are fruiting.” He immersed himself in the work of Paul Stamets, one of the world’s leading mycologists, and the mushroom writings of composer John Cage, who co-founded the New York Mycological Society.

A hobby quickly evolved into a passion (perhaps even an obsession), and after many months of foraging and photographing, Whyte assembled enough work for a book. That project, In Search of Fungi, was published earlier this year. Whyte is billed as “photographer and mushroom forager.” He embraces the identity: “It’s definitely become a part of me.”

Whyte’s rapid evolution from “guy on a hike” to full-on forager is far more common than you would think. Not everyone publishes a book of photos, of course, but his experience features the hallmarks you find in many modern mushroom-obsessives.

First, there’s the conversion experience. For Whyte, it was a powerful moment off-trail. The most famous example of this comes from Paul Stamets himself, who often tells a story about trying psilocybin (magic mushrooms) for the first time as a teenager and climbing a tree during a thunderstorm. He climbed back down having cured his stutter and awakened to the power of fungi. Since then, Stamets has provided conversion experiences for countless others, whether through his work with psilocybin, his academic work (he’s discovered four subspecies), or his activism (his 2008 TED Talk, “6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World,” has been viewed more than 8 million times). Conversion moments can be big or small: Maybe your mind touched the void on a long, strange trip, or maybe you just really dug Fantastic Fungi, Netflix’s immensely popular documentary that scores 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. It doesn’t matter — once a person is red-pilled on mushrooms, like Whyte, they go in deep and fast.

That intensity is the other trademark sign of modern mycophilia: People fall in love. Recall those forums Whyte mentioned — there’s a rich, highly devoted community of mushroom people. They organize trips, make, sell, and wear merch, and create art. One person I spoke to watched Fantastic Fungi and was so inspired they went to work for Smallhold. Andrew Carter, a Smallhold co-founder, remarked with certain awe, “I’ve seen people get crazy about kale or a head of lettuce, [but] show someone a mushroom, and one out of five people are going to go nuts for it. That doesn’t exist for any other kind of food.” Why?

There’s no one simple answer, but if anyone can explain it, it might be a guy named Merlin Sheldrake (seriously). Sheldrake is a biologist (a “fungal ecologist,” specifically) and the author of Entangled Life, a surprise bestseller about all the crazy functions fungi perform and the potential they have to change our world. He has also become one of the most unlikely collaborators in fashion. Iris van Herpen referenced Sheldrake for her mycelium-inspired couture collection, “Roots of Rebirth,” and Stella McCartney worked with him on her own fungal collection. You’re as likely to catch Sheldrake at a Business of Fashion panel as you are at a biology conference.

Sheldrake attributes the shroom boom to a number of factors. Several of them are pretty technical, be they taxonomic or technological. Remember: Fungi weren’t considered to be an organism distinct from plants until recently. “They’re a kingdom of life that has not had a kingdom’s worth of attention,” he says. Fortunately, we now have better means to give them that attention, whether through better microscopes or through DNA sequencing. Sheldrake also thinks fungi have benefitted from the rise of network science in the digital era, which has left experts and everyday people alike better equipped to understand how fungi actually function. All this can get pretty academic, but Sheldrake sums it up simply: “We know more.”

There are big issues at play outside of the laboratory, too. Sheldrake attributes no small part of fungi’s rising popularity to the aforementioned psychedelic renaissance. “The weird and wonderful effects of psilocybin have helped to raise the profile of fungi,” he says. Mind expansion has been good for mushrooms.

Most importantly, though, there’s a vital resonance between mushrooms and the most urgent issue of our time. “As the environmental crisis has worsened, there’s been a growing awareness of the interconnectivity of all life, an ecological turn in the scientific community and in the humanities and the arts,” Sheldrake says. Mushrooms have a lot to offer this turn: “Fungi form literal connections between different organisms. They’ve become the poster organisms for ecological thinking.” This is what’s drawing smaller, environmental devotees like EDEN Power Corp and big-name manufacturers like adidas and IKEA. Fungi don’t just give us a better way of making things, as Sheldrake says, “they reframe waste as an opportunity.” Mushrooms grow out of things that we’ve discarded, giving a literal second life to our refuse.

All this makes a compelling case for the mushroom zeitgeist. Still, somehow it all feels short; it doesn’t capture the near-religious enthusiasm that runs so deeply through the mushroom community. Rainbo, Tonya Papanikolov’s mushroom and wellness brand, strives to be about “a feeling, a lifestyle, a vibe.” That comes through, not only from Rainbo, but from all fungal junkies I met while reporting this piece. From the founders to the biologists to the people on the street picking up mushroom blocks, there were no casual mushroom people. Every convert is an evangelist.

At the heart of every religion is a sense of mystery, and mushrooms are nothing if not mysterious. Perhaps that’s why they inspire such quasi-religious devotion. “The mystery and unknown of mushrooms is unlike anything else that I’ve grown,” says Carter. Over 90 percent of fungi remain unknown to us. Humans have gotten better at growing them (and growing things with them), but for all we’ve learned in the past two or 20 years, mushrooms remain fundamentally strange.

Strange as they may be, mushrooms have a lot to teach. “They point us toward what lies beneath the surface, the many invisible lives that shape the world around us,” Sheldrake reflects. “They coax us out of our imaginations and encourage us to think about the many ways to be alive.” Mushrooms offer a model of a healthier way of being — in our personal lives, in our relationships with others, and our relationship with the planet. In the long arc of fungal history, that’s nothing new, but it might be new for a generation looking to redefine the way it consumes and coexists.

There may also be something even simpler at work: Mushrooms are just really cool, and very alive. When I ask why fungi are springing up so powerfully in the culture right now, Papanikolov puts it best. “Mushrooms have always had this really interesting cultural phenomenon around them. It’s a mix of psychedelics and hippie fun, but it’s grown beyond that into medicine and biomaterials and all these things,” she says. “When you’re working with fungi, you really get this sense that you’re working with another lifeform. You get to observe another living thing, arguably one of the oldest species on Earth. It’s a rapture.”

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