The Magic of Mycelium: How Mushrooms Can Heal the World
At the cusp of spring, I was on a woodland walk in the company of strangers. The urban forests of Washington, D.C., had burst into life as though overnight, and interlacing branches formed a canopy of saturated green above us. Each new bud cried out to be seen, but our gaze was fixed on the earth at our feet. It was morel season, and for the morning we were treasure hunters.
Summer and fall are said to boast a more diverse selection when it comes to mushroom foraging. Even so, we amounted to a small crowd, giddily chattering among ourselves. Many of us were newcomers to the scene who have stumbled into hobby mycology—some quite literally so—during the pandemic era. As our foray leader, Mitch Fornet, led us through the underbrush with a carved wooden walking stick, I struck up a conversation with Corey, a D.C. local. He described to me his fortuitous introduction to mushroom foraging.
“I was going on a lot of walks at the start of the pandemic, but I worried about getting too close to people,” he confided. “I started going off-trail, and suddenly I was finding mushrooms everywhere. That’s where the interest began.”
Tuning into the surrounding hum of conversation, I discover many others had similar experiences. The world of amateur mycology has blossomed over the course of the pandemic, bringing with it a wave of enthusiasm for all things mushroom.
“Our membership has doubled since 2020,” explained Elizabeth Hargrave, president of the Mycological Association of Washington, DC. “Across the board during the pandemic, people are looking for things to do outside. But it’s deeper than that. People really want a connection to the natural world, and foraging is an entry point. It’s more than just free food—it’s sustenance that comes from a place of connection.”
In search of connectivity during the pandemic, some turned to mushroom clubs. For the mycologically inclined, the correlation is clear: fungi embody connection. They are conduits for communication, regularly trading resources with other organisms from beneath the forest floor through a web of threadlike membranes called mycelium.
“I usually say that mycelium are like the roots of mushrooms,” Hargrave explained. “Their physical structure is a little different from plant roots, but they’re serving the same purpose. They are the interface between mushrooms and soil.” The mushrooms we were looking for are more like the tip of the iceberg—something like fruits or flowers born from a twisting, branching network of supports.
Like an underground highway system, mycelium carries nutrients—nitrogen, carbon, and phosphorus—between plant roots, nurturing the collective growth of its community. Its contributions don’t stop there: plants with fungal allies are proven to be more resilient when it comes to infestation and disease, and mycelium has even been shown to transmit messages between plants through a language of chemical signals. This connectivity is also fungi’s greatest tool for survival: as reward for their generosity, plants supply fungi with energy in the form of carbohydrates.
“It’s this super fascinating world that’s connecting everything in the forest,” Hargrave continued. “It’s such an example of the interdependence of everything.”
Throughout the past decade, fungi has secured its rightful place in the spotlight of sustainability efforts as an agent for environmental resilience and restoration. As part of its Earth Optimism × Folklife program, the 2022 Smithsonian Folklife Festival featured torchbearers from the field of mushroom-based sustainable solutions. Representatives from the Mycological Association of Washington, DC, joined participants from Ecovative and products from Bolt Threads, two companies working to harness fungi’s untapped potential in remedying our most pressing ecological challenges.
One doesn’t have to look far to find other instances of mushrooms in the news. Mycelium, in particular, has attracted heavy press attention in recent years, emerging as a trend in the margins of mainstream culture. Once conjuring associations of dirt and decay, fungi even took center stage at Paris Fashion Week this year with Alexander McQueen’s Mycelium collection.
“Mushrooms are definitely having a pop culture moment,” Hargrave admitted.
While some brands have drawn aesthetic inspiration from fungi, others are experimenting with mushroom-sourced materials. Biotech company Ecovative has been at the forefront of mycelium development for the last fifteen years. During this time, they have perfected a mushroom-derived alternative to leather: a soft, durable material which uses fine mycelial fibers to recreate the tissue structure of traditional leathers.
In 2018, Ecovative licensed its technology to material innovation company Bolt Threads, who introduced Mylo™ mushroom leather into the market. Since Mylo’s conception, the company has partnered with big-name brands including Adidas, Kering, Stella McCartney, and Lululemon to launch the product into the world of mainstream fashion.
“By investing heavily in materials that are better for our planet, fashion brands can play a significant role in speeding up the transition to alternative materials,” said David Breslauer, Bolt Thread’s chief technology officer. Between mass deforestation, energy use, and greenhouse-gas emissions, leather production is one of fashion’s most environmentally destructive industries. These innovative brand partnerships are a beacon of hope which shines beyond the world of fashion, indicating changes in consumer habits as a whole.
“The industry is seeing a heavy shift in the attitude toward biomaterials, and it is a trend that is here to stay,” Breslauer affirmed. “People are becoming interested in connecting with nature in their everyday lives.”
Mushroom leather poses a promising alternative to existing leather industries. Production of both traditional and synthetic leathers is notoriously resource-intensive, and the process of raising livestock for animal leathers can take years, as well as enormous acreage. In contrast, the natural components of Mylo are cultivated in vertical farming facilities powered by renewable energy and can be grown in less than two weeks. Whereas “vegan” synthetic leathers are often made with polyurethane or PVC coatings and rely on the use of noxious chemicals, mycelium leather is bio-based, meaning it is made up of primarily raw, natural materials.
“As a company, we think of sustainability in terms of circularity,” explained Andy Bass of Ecovative. “Products should be able to return back into the earth as a nutrient, not a pollutant.” At the end of a mycelium leather product’s life, he told me, a consumer can compost it in their own garden.
Switching to mushroom-based alternatives doesn’t mean an end to leather craftsmanship, either. Ecovative has partnered with leather tanneries to secure a place for their practice within the blueprint of a sustainable future. “We’re working with artisans that have been in the leather tanning business for hundreds of years,” Bass said. “We’re looking to integrate into what already exists.”
Using the knowledge and infrastructure of these artisans, companies like Ecovative and Bolt Threads have devised a tanning process for mushroom leather which closely resembles that of animal hide. The resulting product has the look and feel to meet the standards of top brands and allows artisans and tanneries to sustain their craft.
“There needs to be a partnership,” Bass continued. “We’re not replacing the institution of knowledge that’s out there. We’re just hoping to add onto it.”
Mycelium promises good news to those who listen. Fungi-based biomaterials like Mylo are part of the sustainable future of textile production, and their positive reception may speak to a cultural shift toward a more balanced relationship with the natural world.
“There’s a lot of excitement,” Bass said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, wow—if we can do this with biology, what else can we do?’ Could we get back to a mindset where we’re living in harmony with nature?”
Back at our D.C. excursion, light danced down through the trees. Our chatter faded to stillness, and a sense of deep focus filled its place. Fungi was all around us, but it is easy to miss.
As I crunched through the undergrowth, I tried to remember the last time I placed so much attention on the earth beneath my feet. Before long, I was rewarded with the swift synchronicity that one is often met with when they allow themselves to be present in nature: a single morel winked up at me between layers of oak leaves, lifting itself toward the light.
There is a kind of momentum at play in mushroom foraging: with our eyes attuned to their earthy camouflage, it became easier and easier to point out the caps as we walked. We were asked not to bring mushrooms home with us. Sessions like this are opportunities for learning and appreciation, and the intention is not to walk away with our pockets full. With the hobby’s growing popularity, responsible foraging is more important than ever. Picking mushrooms won’t typically harm the underground mycelial body, but over-harvesting means—at the most basic level—fewer mushrooms to learn from and admire in our forests and fields.
“There’s so much interest in foraging, and there just isn’t the carrying capacity for people to forage at the scale that everyone would love to,” Hargrave explained. “Our activities mostly focus on taking people out to look at what’s there and understand what they’re seeing.”
Ecovative and Bolt Threads are confronted with a similar issue of scale. It can be a challenge to produce mycelium at a level that meets the demands of the mass market and competes against existing industries.
“In order to produce at a large scale, we needed to build a responsible supply chain from the ground up, one that can produce millions of square feet of commercial-quality material at a price that is competitive with traditional animal-derived leather,” Breslauer acknowledged. Upping the production scale of mycelium leathers will be an essential step in getting the material into the hands of the average consumer. Perhaps, though, this challenge is an invitation to reassess just how much we actually need.
Mushrooms are powerful teachers when it comes to community. They encourage us to consider the shortcomings of our own society, particularly the greed and wastefulness rampant in modern consumer culture.
“Mycelium is about building community, networking, nourishing the world around you,” Bass reflected, as our interview drew to a close.
Ecovative—whose markets include mycelium-based alternatives to meat, plastic, and Styrofoam in addition to leather—has been generous in licensing its technology to others. Community and collaboration is central to their approach, as Bass explained. “Being able to share and help others practice this process is huge,” he said. “When we’re talking about sustainability and unlocking the planet’s potential, it shouldn’t be trade secrets.”
Artist CV Peterson explores one avenue of how this shared technology can be applied. Using Ecovative’s GrowBio home growing kits, Peterson turns fungi into a creative medium by crafting sculptures made almost entirely out of mycelium. They showcased a stunning new installation at the Folklife Festival this year: a fishing net woven from repurposed plastics and dotted with mycelium buoys.
Steeped in April and chlorophyll light, our band of foragers was noticeably enlivened as we returned to the parking lot, faces brightened by a morning of adventure. Mushrooms serve as a welcome reminder that our story is a shared one. Humankind is not an island, and an understanding of our own interdependence with the natural world might unlock solutions to the looming challenges we now face. Just as fungi act as powerful allies to other organisms beneath the forest floor, working alongside other species might provide a lifeline in determining the fate of our own.
Though we left the foray with our pockets empty, I felt a sense of fullness as I climbed back into my car. As the others waved their goodbyes and slowly trickled out of the park, I tried my best to imagine an invisible web linking us all together, each of us moving and exploring through this world like tips of the same root. It isn’t difficult, really, and it shouldn’t have to be. Perhaps the answers to our greatest problems are hidden right beneath our feet.
I smiled to myself as I started the car. Somewhere between the trees and bright harmonies of spring, it felt as though we were walking a new path forward.
Tia Merotto is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She graduated from the University of St Andrews with a degree in art history and English.