This is the second in a series of posts introducing medicinal mushrooms. – Linda
The Mystical Mushroom
Mushrooms seem to have always evoked in us a sense of the mystical. They bring to mind a sense of enchantment and transcendent realms where magical, otherworldly beings like fairies, elves, trolls, sylphs and nymphs reside.
The classic, whimsical image of an enchanted mushroom house in the forest may be familiar to some. However in the real world, among most human beings, fungi are rather unfamiliar to us and are far from being the most well understood of organisms.
Fungus – A Misunderstood Organism
There seems to be somewhat of a mystique around fungi, and when most people hear the word it conjures in their minds thoughts of something strange, curious and rather peculiar – something that grows into sometimes outlandish shapes and thrives in dark, dank, moist places.
Fungi are associated with things that are often slimy, sticky, icky, and unpleasant. We tend to think of anything of a fungal nature as being alien looking, invasive or perhaps even dangerous, because if they happen to be ingested some of them are notoriously poisonous, and a few are quite deadly.
Fungi can seem very foreign to us because their form, function and natural habitats are so vastly different from our own.
The sight of fungi, as well as that of their natural surroundings can feel very strange to us because their shapes are often so bizarre, and because the places where they grow are often chilly, damp and shrouded in dark, murky shadows.
Fungi exist in conditions where human beings never really could for any length of time, so it can be very challenging for us as warm blooded animals, who thrive in the light of day, to relate on just about any level to many fungal organisms as fellow lifeforms.
The Fungal Kingdom
Science classifies all life forms on Earth into five kingdoms. These are the:
Protista (single celled organisms, which include things like bacteria, algae, paramecium, and amoeba, all belong to the monera and protista kingdoms)
All fungi, which besides mushrooms also include yeasts, molds, rusts and smuts, belong to their own discrete kingdom.
This means fungi:
are not single celled organisms like the monera and protista
do not contain chlorophyll and do not photosynthesize sunlight to create their own food as plants do
do not move about or ingest food the way animals do
Neither Plants Nor Animals
Fungi do breathe in oxygen as animals do, but their food is derived from dying, decaying and dead organic matter which assimilated outside the body of the fungus and then absorbed from without, rather then being consumed and digested the way animals eat their food.
The cellular substrate of fungi is formed out of a substance called chitin, (pronounced kite-in) which is the same material that comprises the carapaces and exoskeletons of crustaceans like lobster, crab and shrimp, as well as those of insects.
The true number of species of fungi is not known, with estimates varying from 1.5 million to up to 5 million. And yet only a fraction of those, approximately 100,000, have been identified scientifically.
Clearly the breadth and depth of the fungal kingdom is infinitely far vaster and more diverse than most of us could ever imagine.
The primary association that comes to most people’s minds when they think of the word mushroom is often the ubiquitous white button, crimini, or portabello mushrooms found in virtually any grocery store’s produce section. (Many would be surprised to learn that all of these mushrooms are in fact the very same species, Agaricus bisporus.)
Although white buttons, criminis and portabellos are especially familiar to us, given the fact that thousands upon thousands of tons of these mushrooms are cultivated and consumed by people around the world, there are a wide variety of other very delicious species of edible mushrooms.
A few of the most popular include, chanterelles, oysters, morels, porcinis, and one of the supreme delicacies of the culinary world, truffles, as well as shiitakes, maitakes, lion’s mane, and enokis.
Another thing that often occurs to many folks when they think of the word mushroom is ‘magic’ mushrooms, such as psilocybin or aminita muscaria, which have psychoactive properties.
Such species of fungi have a very long history of use among human beings, and even today some consider these entheogenic species of fungi to be sacramental, and approach their use with reverence and ceremony, and with the intention of utilizing their psychotropic properties to assist in the cultivation of expanded consciousness and enhanced spiritual awareness.
Some species of mushrooms are poisonous and ingesting them will make a person very ill, and others, such as various types of Amanita and Clitocybe and Galerina, are downright deadly.
A handful of mushroom species even utilize light emitting substances known as luciferin and luciferase to glow in the dark!
And finally, a number of species of mushrooms are considered to be very therapeutic medicinally and as tonics or adaptogens, and it is these species on which we’ll be primarily focusing in this work.
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