For much of human history, women have been the main keepers and distributors of mycological knowledge. Here, we meet just a few of the female scientists, naturalists, farmers, and healers who have been, and continue to be, inspired and empowered by the magic of mushrooms
The mushrooms glisten in the early autumn light like freshly glazed confections in a pastry case. Deep in the forest, each form shines under a fine dew, amplifying the ethereal blues, maroons, and yellows. I move slowly, as leaves softly crackle underfoot, sending the sweet breath of decay upwards. In these precious moments of stillness, all thoughts drop away. I am now attuned to the mushrooms. The words of Mary Banning echo in my mind: “Trees, flowers, ferns, mosses, lichens, and fungi lie before us like so many medals stamped with the signet of God, and before which the mind bows down to worship. Each is a glory bright as those which adorn the arch of Hope in the rain cloud. Each is telling its life history to those who will pause to listen to the story.”
Banning was the very first person to produce an illustrated guide to fungi in North America. Obsessed with mushrooms since childhood, she began her book in 1868, when there was little funding for the study of fungi, especially for women. So, with her own money, Banning bought a microscope, amassed a library of science textbooks, and set up a private herbarium. “Fungi are considered vegetable outcasts,” she once wrote in a letter. “Like beggars by the wayside dressed in gay attire, they ask for attention but claim none.” It took her 20 years to write The Fungi of Maryland. Filled with luscious, lively, hand-painted illustrations, her manuscript details 175 species of fungi, 23 never before described to science.
Each monograph contains detailed accounts of taxonomy, personal anecdotes, environmental data, mythology, literary references, and folk wisdom. Unfortunately, due to the many challenges for women’s acceptance into the field, her manuscript was never published, although there was a mushroom, Hypomyces banningiae, that was named for her. Banning joyously detailed her encounters with both the delightful and the weird. Lovingly painted are mushrooms such as the unmistakable Lactarius indigo, a beautiful, edible blue mushroom with tightly packed, razor-thin gills. True to its common name, the “indigo milk cap,” it exudes a bright blue milk when cut. And on one occasion, she rode six miles in a crowded public conveyance holding a basket of Phallus duplicatus—a particularly foul-smelling, phallic shaped fungus that is covered in a slimy green coating and has the common name “netted stinkhorn.” By the end of the ride, Banning states that “the smell had increased to such an extent that the flies nearly devoured me, in their eagerness to get at the fungus.”
But Banning did not let her strange encounters deter her. For her, fungi were not just objects of scientific scrutiny, but a doorway into the numinous. “A veil of mystery envelops the cryptogamic world,” she writes, “but a glimpse through its folds conveys to the human mind a yet greater convincing proof that the creations of this earth are intended to become revelations of the greatest omnipotence.” Banning was one of thousands of women who have become smitten by mushrooms. Through the lens of fungi, we find stories of women who turn waste into wealth, break down barriers in the natural sciences, facilitate the transmission of cultural knowledge, expand consciousness, and explore the land for healing and nourishment.
Mushrooms have captivated artists and scientists for centuries, given their strange and fantastic forms. Often compared to the likes of an above ground coral reef, they come in every imaginable shape, size, even smell. And the discerning mushroom enthusiast uses all of her senses to identify a mushroom, relying on features ranging from type of cap, gills, pores, stem, size, color, taste, environment and many more subtle and discerning details. Many species depart wildly from the familiar cap and stem forms, displaying hairy “teeth” like small icicles, unfurling petal shapes, trembling jelly, lace-like netting and rotundity like a loaf of freshly baked bread, to name a few. The flavor of edible mushrooms can vary as well— from being meaty, to shellfish-like, to as sweet as maple syrup, as is the “candy cap.” And although their function might be mysterious to some, each has an important role to play in the ecosystem, inviting us to consider how even the strangest-looking organisms contribute to a balanced web of life.
To understand the lessons fungi have to teach us, we should first know how they function in the environment, and how intertwined our lives are with theirs. The mushroom we see is the fruiting part of the fungal body, similar to an apple on a tree. It is neither plant nor animal, but belongs to its own kingdom: fungi. Mushrooms sprout from mycelium—a vast network of penetrating, connecting, filament-like threads underground that form a cross current of information and nutrients. Fungal networks can be enormous, and they are absolutely everywhere. Despite their omnipresence, few are aware of the staggering variety of microscopic life woven within our bodies, seething beneath our feet, arising all around us, and on which we depend greatly. It can be a challenge to connect with what we can’t see, and fungi require patience and persistence. “It is much easier for people to relate to the interrelationships in the animal world, and even in the plant world. It is much harder for people to embrace or conceptualize interrelationships in the microbial world,” says Eugenia Bone, well-known mushroom enthusiast and author of Microbia: A Journey into the Unseen World Around You and Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms. “We can’t really see them. It takes a great leap of imagination to lock into the brain that there is an invisible world, and that takes a kind of discipline." But despite their invisibility to us, fungi are essential to life on Earth. They play a primary role in the decomposition and recycling of organic matter. Without fungi, there would be no nutrients to share. They unlock mineral elements bound up in woody debris, without which the soil would soon be depleted. Food systems would collapse.
Ecologist Suzanne Simard’s pioneering research into forest ecology has even demonstrated that trees communicate with each other via this subterranean fungal tapestry, which resembles neural networks in the brain. It is no accident that analogies of interconnectedness are often woven within the story of fungi, for their function in the ecosystem is literally that—a tale of communion and exchange.
“For the first time, I could grow my mushrooms and cook them and have a plate full of mushrooms all to myself.”–Chido Govera
For activist and farmer Chido Govera, mushrooms present a pathway towards women’s independence, financial sustainability, and personal healing. Growing up in her native Zimbabwe as a young orphan surviving abuse and poverty, she struggled to feed herself. But then she learned to farm mushrooms. “For the first time, I could grow my mushrooms and cook them and have a plate full of mushrooms all to myself,” she explained in a 2016 talk she gave at MAD SYD, a Danish-organized food conference. “I could sell the mushrooms and get money. I didn’t have to dig for a bowl of maize meal anymore. And it was the most exciting moment of my life.” And via mushrooms, Govera hopes to provide a bright future for others. She created The Future of Hope Foundation, which empowers young orphan girls to grow mushrooms and “envision a world where everyone can be a change agent, starting where they are, with what they have and regardless of their backgrounds.”
“We teach them to grow food. The main focus is on mushrooms and there’s a good reason for that. Mushrooms are one of those very special things to grow, and especially in the communities where I come from, where the one thing that is available in abundance is waste,” she shared in the same talk. “People are starving, but there’s a lot of waste material that is going to the trash without being used for anything valuable.” Like the fungi they grow, women like Govera transform what is waste into the substance for new life.
In a country like Zimbabwe, where many women still face discrimination around land ownership, growing food that requires only a small amount of space is an ideal solution. But in 2012, research by ethnomycologists from the University of Mexico concluded that all around the world, women are the primary mushroom collectors and stewards of mycological knowledge. It is women who understand which mushrooms have medicinal uses, which are to be eaten, how to prepare them, and where to gather mushrooms to sell and help support their families. Their vast experience is passed down from generation to generation, adding their own innovations along with it. And today, many are seeking to remember these ancient ways.
“Seeing groups of Black and Brown femmes in the woods—[who live in] food deserts they might have been redlined into—realize that there are stands where you can find black trumpet mushrooms everywhere, has been one of the most rewarding experiences."—Maria Pinto
Writer, mushroom enthusiast, and educator Maria Pinto shares how foraging fungi helped her not just connect with the land, but also with something fundamental in human nature. “When I first started to go into the woods, I didn’t know what I was looking for. I just knew mushrooms are here, they are exciting,” she says. “I am fascinated by them and I wanted to see where they are growing. I was trying to become a better animal, to lead with my sense of smell, my sense of sight, through different woodland environments, which was my way into the healing aspect of all of it.” Pinto now leads groups into the woods in the greater Boston area, teaching them about the abundance of wild edible mushrooms and the joys of immersing oneself in nature’s greatest treasure hunt. “You have to go outside, take a hike, and actually look for them,” she explains. “They’re hard to find, so you have to calibrate your eyes and get low, and be willing to get a little dirty.”
This can be an especially powerful act for those who have been systematically excluded from access to affordable, nourishing food. “Seeing groups of Black and Brown femmes in the woods—[who live in] food deserts they might have been redlined into—realize that there are stands where you can find black trumpet mushrooms everywhere, has been one of the most rewarding experiences,” Pinto says.
The ephemeral nature of fungi can help us sharpen our view. While the locations of plants are usually predictable year to year, mushrooms can arise and disappear within days. It takes patience and skill to learn to spot them. Those who come to know fungi, sooner or later cannot resist being struck by their special kind of magic. And in cultures throughout the world, mushrooms have been worshiped for their spiritual power for centuries. Only recently in North America have mushrooms become such objects of divine fascination, from medicinal species advertised as a panacea for a range of diseases to psilocybin being pursued for the promise of treating anxiety and depression. Wellness companies praising psilocybin as the next miracle cure are popping up like mushrooms.
Yet, in the rush for legalization, it is important to know and learn from those who stewarded these sacred plant medicines, to appreciate the deep well of knowledge that has been tended for centuries. María Sabina was a Mazatec, an indigenous people of the Oaxaca region of Mexico. Born in 1894, she worked as a curandera, or shaman, who healed through her connection to mushrooms, referred to as teo-nanacatl, meaning “the flesh of God.” Ceremonies were traditionally held for medicinal purposes, to purge illness and heal the sick. At these rituals—or veladas—curanderas ingested psilocybin mushrooms in order to commune with the world of spirit. In a 1978 documentary, María Sabina, Mujer Espíritu (María Sabina, Spirit Woman), we see her conducting one of these ceremonies in her village, commenting that young people need to show respect for the mushrooms as “the rituals are not a game for me.” Sabina’s medicine work was accompanied by poetry and verse that, she explained, were channeled from the mushrooms themselves. “I am known in heaven, because I am a doctor woman,” she said in her oral autobiography. “I take ‘Little-One-Who-Springs-Forth’ [sacred mushrooms] and I see God. I see him sprout from the earth. He grows and grows, as big as a tree, as a mountain.”
In 1955, amateur ethnomycologists Valentina Wasson and R. Gordon Wasson began traveling to Mexico in search of the famed mushroom rituals. There, a municipal trustee of Huautla persuaded Sabina to accept the foreigners into her sacred healing ceremonies, and Gordon Wasson became one of the first Westerners to participate in such a ceremony. The couple gathered spores while there, which were brought to Europe where they were cultivated, and led to the identification of psilocybin. While Gordon is often credited as introducing “magic mushrooms” to the outside world, it was Valentina’s lifelong passion for fungi, beginning from childhood in her native Russia, that ultimately influenced her husband to join in her research into the folklore, history, and anthropology of mushrooms throughout the world. After their experiences in Mexico, both Valentina and Gordon Wasson published their accounts in numerous magazines—including the extremely popular LIFE—thereby exposing millions to the rituals previously only known by the Mazatec.
This resulted in a flood of foreigners to the region, with many seeking the sacred mushrooms for spiritual experiences—John Lennon, Bob Dylan, and Keith Richards are all rumored to have visited Sabina. But while the introduction of the sacred mushrooms to Western society has had many positive impacts, the implications of integrating indigenous healing traditions within a capitalist society are complex and often challenging, especially for the communities from which they originate. Sabina’s story invites us to reflect on the impact of destructive legacies of colonialism, cultural appropriation, and racism within the rapidly growing psychedelic and spiritual industries. Yet, despite the complexity of her story, through Sabina’s eyes we are granted a vision of divine spirit, one that is critical to honor as these powerful mushrooms are integrated into modern society.
By understanding their potential to break down matter and remediate toxins within the environment, fungi can help inspire visions for change, and women worldwide are taking the lead to address these issues. Biologist Lexie Gropper looks to fungi as a way to restore degraded ecosystems in the Amazon. One of her many efforts includes working with mycelium to facilitate bioremediation efforts in Ecuadorian communities impacted by the Chevron/Texaco oil spills. Another innovator, Giuliana Furci, founded the Fungi Foundation, a global organization that promotes education and innovative solutions through fungi. Fungi Foundation lobbies for their inclusion into regional and international public policy discussions around conservation, and through their efforts, the group influenced Chile to become the first country in the world to include fungi in its legislation.
Mushrooms are also famous for evading classification and defying binaries—microbial phytopathologist Erika Kothe has identified over 23,000 different sexes in one species. This makes them excellent allies to subvert patriarchal, hegemonic political and social structures, according to mycologist Dr. Patricia Kaishian. Kaishian has utilized ideas from queer theory and feminism to develop a notion of “queer mycology,” and argues that mushrooms can be seen as models to “challenge binaries of gender, family structure, and even traditional biological classification.”
According to Dr. Patricia Kaishian, mushrooms can be seen as models to “challenge binaries of gender, family structure, and even traditional biological classification.”
We have seen but a few of the many women, past and present, who have aligned with fungi to heal and transform, their lineage as endless as the miles of mycelium underground. Whether in the spotlight or in the shadows, these women persist by allying with fungi for joy, justice, health, knowledge, and praise of the sacred. Countless mushroom enthusiasts are now connecting like never before, birthing new possibilities for incorporating fungi into our lives, creating fertile ground for future generations. As the power of fungi becomes a bigger part of the collective conversation, consider how many more women are coming to know and align with fungi. What ways might we partner with these amazing organisms that are yet to be discovered? Will your story be one of them?
PORCINI AND PUMPKIN PAPPARDELLE
Recipe By Sean Sullivan
My friend Alfredo introduced me to his secret porcini patch here in the woods of East Hampton. The first time we went, I got eight specimens of wild Boletus edulis, a satisfying number for a novice mushroom hunter. Subsequent trips have not been as productive. Alfredo’s “secret” spot turned out not to be so secret; usually, there was evidence of recent harvesting. In this pasta dish, the pumpkin creates an unctuous backdrop that lets the mushroom flavor shine. You can use fresh pappardelle pasta, but remember, fresh takes much less time to cook.
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 large yellow onion, chopped, about 8 ounces
1 pound fresh porcini mushrooms, sliced
6 cups fresh cheese pumpkin, ends trimmed, seeds and pulp removed,
cut into 1⁄2-inch cubes, about 24 ounces (see note)
3 to 4 cups chicken broth
Pinch of nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1⁄4 cup chopped, fresh flat-leaf parsley, plus 2 tablespoons for garnish (optional)
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme or marjoram
12 ounces dried or fresh pappardelle pasta
1⁄2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large, heavy pot over low heat. Add the onions and cook gently for 5 minutes, until they become translucent and soft. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil, the mushrooms, and the pumpkin cubes. Turn up the heat to medium and cook, stirring gently, for 10 minutes, until the mushrooms give up their water and the water evaporates and the mushrooms begin to turn golden. Watch to make sure the squash doesn’t start to brown on the bottom. If it does, lower the heat.
When the mushrooms are golden, add 3 cups of chicken broth, nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste. The stock should surround, but not cover, the vegetables. If needed, add more stock. Simmer uncovered over medium heat for about 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cook until the pumpkin is soft and the sauce has thickened. Stir in the butter and the chopped parsley. Set aside.
Bring a big pot of salted water to a boil over high heat and add the pasta. Cook for about 12 minutes, until the pasta is al dente. Drain and add pasta to sauce. Add the Parmesan cheese and toss. Garnish with parsley, if you like, and serve.
NOTE: A cheese pumpkin is preferred for this recipe, as the skin does not have to be peeled; however, any edible pumpkin, properly prepared, can be used.
lllustration (top) by Apak Studio (@apakstudio)
This article originally appeared in BUST's Spring 2022 print edition. Subscribe today!
Alanna Burns works at the intersection of mycology, art, ecology, and storytelling. In 2016, she began researching the overlooked stories of 19th century women in mycology. What started with one story evolved into a complex "herstory" project, which traces relationships between the feminine and the fungal in art, culture, science, and health. Follow Alanna on Instagram @alanna_burns