The Hidden Powers of Fungi

Listen 49:12
An illustration of mushrooms

(Illustration by Maiken Scott)

When you hear the word fungi, chances are mushrooms come to mind: button mushrooms, maybe portobellos, or chanterelles. But so much of the fungi kingdom is invisible — underground — and many say underappreciated. Fungi are vital to life on the planet, but scientists are just beginning to understand their many functions and possibilities. On this episode, we explore the role of fungi in nature, in medicine, and in our lives. We’ll talk about sustainable design that utilizes mycelium, discuss how fungi form networks that communicate information, and look at an experimental and unapproved fungi-based treatment people are using to regain their sense of smell.

Also heard on this week’s episode:

  • Mycologist and mushroom entrepreneur Paul Stamets talks about growing mushrooms in your own backyard.
  • Biologist Merlin Sheldrake discusses the important role of fungi as the planet’s “brilliant decomposers,” and explains why he loves the idea of having fungi all around us — and inside of us.
  • We visit Vedge Restaurant in Philadelphia to get a crash course on preparing mushrooms from Chef Rich Landau (Pro tip: hold the salt until the very end!) He explains how to cook with different mushrooms, and recalls a time when portobello mushrooms were an expensive rarity.
  • Designer Danielle Trofe talks about the lampshades she grows from mycelium. They’re light, velvety to the touch, sturdy, and yet completely biodegradable.
  • Foraging for mushrooms was a “national sport” in the Czech Republic where Barbora Batokova grew up. Now, she brings her love of mushrooms to fans online, where she goes by “Fungiwoman.” Her sites feature beautiful photos of mushrooms that she finds in the wild, as well as explanations and tips for identification.

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