Mushrooms are having a moment. From runways to hit TV shows and restaurant menus to home furnishings, they are popping up everywhere, while news articles and research papers begin digging into their many potential uses.
In 2021, leading fashion designer Stella McCartney debuted the world's first garments made of mushroom leather, in partnership with Bolt Threads, and last year, she unveiled a mushroom-leather purse. The vegan, sustainable material is constructed of mycelium, the mushroom's fibrous underground root system that connects the bulbous flowering structures, which are, in turn, inspiring couture and kitschy fashion designs alike. Later this month, Hermès' mushroom-leather provider, MycoWorks, will open the first commercial-scale "fine mycelium" production plant.
Based on recent studies, mycelium could become a favored fire retardant, and fungi could hold the answer to our plastics problem. A popular 2019 documentary called "Fantastic Fungi" examines mushrooms' medicinal benefits against diseases including cancer and Alzheimer's, and last year, the New York Times Bestseller "How to Change Your Mind" was turned into a Netflix docu-series exploring the psychedelic properties of "magic mushrooms," aka psilocybin.
Forbes and Condé Nast Traveller are among the growing number of mainstream media outlets chronicling the rise of psychedelic retreats such as The Journeyman Collective in Vancouver, which are expected to help propel the psychedelics market to $10.7 billion by 2027, a more than 180% increase over seven years, according to Data Bridge Market Research cited in a 2021 Bloomberg article. Meanwhile, vintage mushroom-shaped lamps are selling for hundreds of dollars on eBay.
"I really feel like the current popularity of mushrooms in pop culture grew out of an interest in fungi in the real world, maybe fueled by the return to nature and the outdoors that we saw during the pandemic," says Tina Harrison, owner of Blue Skies on Frazier Avenue, where shoppers are snapping up an increasing assortment of mushroom-related gifts, décor and accessories.
Sophia Cowan is one of those customers, and she says, in fact, that she developed an appreciation for mushrooms while hiking, before transitioning the spawned designs into her home and personal décor. Despite having grown up in the '80s, sandwiched between mushrooms' iconic heyday and the original re-emergence some 20 years later, she didn't have a cache of memorabilia to hand down to her 18-year-old daughter, who shares her mom's new affinity for the cultural phenomenon. It wasn't the nostalgia of psychedelic posters or quirky '90s fashion that spurred Cowan's purchases of mushroom-emblazoned garland, patches, notebooks and attire, but rather a different sense of connection.
"I think you might be able to also link it to mindfulness, meditation and yoga and encouraging people to notice where they are, notice their environment," says Cowan, who, like many, began hiking regularly during the pandemic. "Mushrooms are one of the things you're not going to spot if you're moving quickly; they are something you have to observe. They only last a day or two for the most part, so it's a privilege to see one."
Mushrooms in all their forms are the latest trend
Amid the return to nature spurred by the pandemic and a societal sense of overwhelm and disconnectedness, many are turning to holistic food and medicinal offerings. Fellow North Shore retailer Danielle Landrum, owner of Locals Only, correlates the store's increased sales of mushroom-related merchandise with the "cottagecore" social media trend, an idealized back-to-nature lifestyle that favors garden-fresh ingredients, natural fibers and cozy décor, among other things.
"I think with Covid, it really scared people," says Emma Reigel, who runs Gowin Valley Farms in nearby Rocky Face, Georgia. "The average fruit or vegetable you buy from the grocery store travels, at a minimum, 1,600 miles. That is a long supply chain going from Mexico. How many hands are touching that? I think a lot of people got that in their head and wanted to go more local."
Having transitioned her fledgling CSA (community-supported agriculture) vegetable operation to a full-scale mushroom farm in April 2021, she reports that "it's growing to the point that we cannot even keep up." The farm has partnered with Cornell University and Kennesaw State to explore innovative ways of mushroom farming.
Though most of her family members farm, it was not something Reigel initially decided to pursue. But after realizing the potential a mushroom farm like hers could have, she changed gears, and the research she did for her master's dissertation in business seems to be bearing out. As the costs for cattle farming, for example, continue to rise, so do the uses and popularity of mushrooms. Reigel believes that they will be the number-one source of protein in the next 10 years — she's already seen a marked uptick in the volume going to local restaurants — and she now has clients from soccer moms to senior citizens requesting the farm's mushroom tinctures.
"We have turkey tail, reishi and lion's mane tinctures," she explains. "We started out with 60 each, and we sold out in two weeks. I thought that would last three months."
Reigel and Cowan both cite personal experience with the healing properties of turkey tail mushrooms against cancer, which the FDA approved for human trials in 2012.
"I think mushrooms were a little taboo in society for a while, with the war on drugs and people being scared of nature in general," says Reigel. "As more people are going to be seeing mushrooms in farmers markets, restaurants, on TV — we're about to be in six new health stores — I think all of that will help shift that."
The Journeymen Collective founders Gary Logan and Robert Grover are already seeing the effects, as a growing clientele of entrepreneurs and business executives seek them out for a curated mental shift through the guided use of small doses of psilocybin. Having experienced their own spiritual awakening during a medicine man-led "trip," they asked him to help them cultivate the skills to lead others through the process, a one-on-one four-month journey of discovery and manifestation both leading up to and following the two "integration" ceremonies.
"I think fungi in general are a very underrated component of life on Earth," Grover says. "If we look at a mushroom in the forest, what does it do? It decomposes that which is no longer necessary, and it does that to generate the next level of growth."
Gowin Valley Farms' Emma Reigel and Gabriel Harrison are certified foragers and personally cultivate between 20 and 40 different mushroom species at any given time, with some of the most popular being lion's mane, chanterelles, nameko and king trumpets. In addition to selling weekly at the Chattanooga Market, they host various onsite educational and foraging events at the farm, and Reigel says they seek to be a source of information for anyone interested in mushrooms. She happily provides recipes, preparation tips and information on nutritional aspects and other benefits. For those seeking to grow their own mushrooms, the farm also sells inoculation kits. To connect, visit gowinvalleyfarms.com and sign up for the newsletter.