Mushrooms, like the very forests in which they are found, are sources of both danger and wonder.
And not all embrace them.
For many, mushrooms—used in sacred rituals and as sustenance since ancient times—contain an aura of mystery. They’re often associated—especially in literature, poetry, and fairytales—with malevolence, supernatural powers, darkness, death, and decay. Mushrooms were fairy food, the way witches caused trouble for gardens and crops, and ingredients in poisons and potions, enchantments and aphrodisiacs.
Famous scribes—from Percy Shelly, Lord Alfred Tennyson, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to D.H. Lawrence, H.G. Wells, and Ray Bradbury—all wrote about menacing mushrooms. Emily Dickinson insulted them: Had Nature any outcast face … The mushroom—it is him.
These mentions, though, allude to psychedelic, inedible, or poisonous varieties—not the glorious Pacific golden chanterelle. You’d be hard-pressed to find any malicious references to these fragrant, flower-like fungi. Even their name—which dates to the late 18th century—is pretty.
Mushrooms, including chanterelles, “of course, are integral to the forest,” says Frank Dugan (’92 PhD Plant Path.), who has written extensively about mycology in art and folklore as well as throughout history and different cultures.
“Take the Mesoamerican, particularly rituals of indigenous peoples of Oaxaca, and also the ancient Maya, in which the occurrence of mushrooms in sculpture is well documented,” notes Dugan, who retired in 2018 after working at WSU as a research plant pathologist for the USDA Agricultural Research Service since 1999.
Or, the so-called “white witches” or “kitchen witches” of old-time plant and mycological lore.
“Basically, in pre-modern Europe things could get pretty tight in terms of food sources,” Dugan says. “It was generally the women who knew how to explore the forests and fields for edible plants. The high doctors of the time admitted as much. They admitted they learned their plants, especially medicinal plants, from women. They relied on them. Most women who were doing things with plants did not end up on the stake because they were economically important. They were also the font of knowledge for the first books on edible or poisonous fungi in the early 1600s.”
The woods where mushrooms grow are symbols, too—of risk and peril, the unknown and untamed. Baba Yaga, the witch, lives in the woods. It’s where the Big Bad Wolf stalks Little Red Riding Hood, and Hansel and Gretel get lost—along with Snow White and Goldilocks.
“However,” Dugan notes, “this is a somewhat Euro-centric perspective, or a perspective of European settlers in the Americas. To many indigenous people, the forest was home—a larder of meats and vegetable products—more a supermarket than a dark and forbidding wilderness of mystery.”
Here, Dugan shares reading recommendations—from well-illustrated regional guides to a couple of his own scholarly works and periodicals—divided by category.
Regional Mushroom Guides
Evenson, V., and the Denver Botanic Gardens. Mushrooms of the Rocky Mountain Region. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon. 2015.
McKenny, M., D.E. Stuntz and J.F. Ammirati. The New Savory Wild Mushroom. University of Washington, Seattle. 1987.
Miller, O.K., and H.H. Miller. North American Mushrooms. Falcon, Helena, Montana. 2006.
Trudell, S., and J. Ammirati. Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon. 2009.
Mushroom Hunting and Mushroom Hunters
Benjamin, D.R. Musings of a Mushroom Hunter: A Natural History of Foraging. Tembe, Cle Elum, Washington. 2010.
Bone, E. Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms. Rodale, New York. 2011.
Cook, L. The Mushroom Hunters: On the Trail of an Underground America. Ballantine, New York. 2013.
Lincoff, G. The Complete Mushroom Hunter: An Illustrated Guide to Finding, Harvesting, and Enjoying Wild Mushrooms. Quayside, Beverly, Massachusetts. 2010.
Benjamin, D.R. Mushrooms: Poisons and Panaceas. W.H. Freeman, New York. 1995.
Lincoff, G., and D.H. Mitchell. Toxic and Hallucinogenic Mushroom Poisoning: A Handbook for Physicians and Mushroom Hunters. Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York. 1977.
Medicinal Mushrooms and Mushroom Cultivation
Rogers, R. The Fungal Pharmacy: Medicinal Mushrooms of Western Canada. Prairie Deva, Edmonton, Alberta. 2006.
Stamets, P. Growing Gourmet & Medicinal Mushrooms. Third Edition. Ten Speed, Berkeley, California. 2000.
History of Mycology
Ainsworth, G.C. Introduction to the History of Mycology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, U.K. 1976.
Dugan, F.M. Fungi in the Ancient World. APS Press, St. Paul, Minnesota. 2008.
Dugan, F.M. Hidden Histories and Ancient Mysteries of Witches, Plants, and Fungi. APS Press, St. Paul, Minnesota. 2015.
Dugan, F.M. Conspectus of World Ethnomycology: Fungi in Ceremonies, Crafts, Diets, Medicines, and Myths. APS Press, St. Paul, Minnesota. 2011.
Wasson, R.G. The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica. McGraw-Hill, New York. 1980.
Wasson, V.P., and R.G. Wasson. 1957. Mushrooms, Russia and History. (2 vols.). Pantheon, New York.
FUNGI Magazine (fungimag.com)
The Mycophile, newsletter of the North American Mycological Association. (namyco.org)
Here, Lori Carris, who recently retired as a professor and interim chair of WSU’s department of plant pathology, lists her recommendations for “the most up-to-date” field guides.
Desjardin, D., Wood M.G., Stevens F. A. California Mushrooms: The Comprehensive Identification Guide. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon. 2015.
Trudell, S, and Ammirati, J. Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon. 2015.
Siegel, N. and Schwarz, C. Mushrooms of the Redwood Coast. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, California. 2016.
Mushrooms of the Pacific Northwest, Carris notes, “is the best regional field guide, particularly for the most common mushrooms, but it is not very comprehensive. It has a good section on chanterelles.”
The other two books she recommends are “the most up-to-date and comprehensive field guides available, and even though they are for California, the mushrooms in the Pacific Northwest are similar enough to make these books very useful. If you look in most of the available mushroom guidebooks, the chanterelles will be listed as Cantharellus cibarius, which we now know is a European species. There is a variety of C. cibarius that grows in the Pacific Northwest, but not the true C. cibarius.”
Read more about Pacific golden chanterelles.