Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World

            Paul Stamets is an authority on mushrooms in the world of mycologists. He has published several books before this one, some of which define mushroom cultivation. This particular text, Mycelium Running, expands upon the practical uses of mushrooms other than as a food.

            Stamets demonstrates the power of fungi in the environment through examples, many of them first-hand. Some key uses are water reclamation/filtration, land remediation, and natural pesticides.. Mushrooms provide alternatives to our current systems of caring for the environment. As water filters, fungi are inexpensive and easy to maintain. Stamets’ own farm had toxic runoff produced by his livestock. Pathogens such as bacteria and parasites entered the water supply, creating problems downstream. To solve this problem, he laid a down a bed of mushrooms in the path of the runoff. The contaminated water seeped into the bed, feeding mushrooms that preyed on the bacteria and parasites. Runoff after the mushroom filter contained far fewer contaminants than his neighbors without the mushrooms.

            The use of bacteria to clean up oil spills is well known. Mushrooms are able to do the same, and more. Different species of mushrooms have different niches in the remediation department. Some consume petroleum, useful for oil spills. Others take up radioactive substances, gathering them up into their fruiting body (the mushroom). Many are able to sequester heavy metals and chemicals such as DDT  in their mushroom bodies. In the last two instances, the mushrooms can be harvested and disposed of safely. This would save millions in clean-up efforts, as well as increasing the efficiency.

            One of the properties Stamets once owned was infested with termites and carpenter ants. The house was falling apart, being eaten by the insects. Stamets introduced parasitic fungi selective for the termites and ants. Within weeks, the pests were gone. The insects had brought the fungal spores to their homes, infecting entire colonies.

            In the book, Stamets also gives an introduction on how to start a mushroom farm. Starting from scratch, one would have to either obtain spores from the wild or spores/spawn from a commercial seller or a friend. The spores are cultivated on agar in a plate, then inoculated in a suitable substrate, such as straw or wood. Water and temperature are important factors; much like crops, different species have different ideal climates. Tender love and care result in mushrooms. Another method relies on the underground network of mycelia, the “roots” of mushrooms. They can be transferred to a garden from the wild or from another garden. After the transplant, some effort and time are rewarded with mushrooms.

            Stamets devotes a large portion of the book to mushroom types and identification. This is an essential part of mushroom farming and foraging, especially when there is potential of poisonous species. Plenty of pictures help guide the reader through his or her own adventures.

            I found this book to be very informative. The different ways mushrooms can be used are just amazing. With so much potential, it makes me wonder why we don’t see them used often. Stamets focuses on the uses of mushrooms on a large scale: how they can be used to mediate farms, keep pests under control, and reclaim ruined land. There is little to no mention of urban agriculture; that is a jump the reader will have to make him/herself. It was an interesting task to apply his ideas in urban agriculture. As I read his book, I had a sense that Stamets glorified the mushroom. Although I completely share his feelings, I had to take a more objective view on his work. Some of the concepts he brings up may not be feasible. For example, large farms have large wastes; how much land will it require to filter all of it using mushrooms? This is doubly true in large cities that feel cramped as is. However, part of the fun is also attempting to solve these problems.