The Mushroom Underground

They’re a kingdom unto themselves, neither animal, vegetable, nor mineral. They count among their number both the world's largest organism and millions of microscopic, single-celled creatures. And yet not only have they been an important—and delicious—food source for thousands of years, but they also seem to have powerful medicinal properties. What are these mysterious creatures? Fungi!

In this episode of Gastropod, join hosts Cynthia Graber and Nicola Twilley as they dive underground into the weird world of mushrooms. They visit one of the largest fungi collections in the world, the U.S. National Fungus Collection in Beltsville, Maryland, home to a million specimens as well as two Transylvanian mushroom hats. They also tour a boutique mushroom farm in Maine and head out on "the quiet hunt" through a New England forest in search of wild mushrooms that are tasty, rather than toxic.

Eric Loman Mycelium 800
Erik Lomen of Maine Cap N' Stem Company shows Nicky a bag of sawdust in the process of being colonized by mycelium. Photo by Geoff Manaugh.

Along the way, they uncover the long history of mushroom consumption, and the (much shorter) history of mushroom cultivation, as well as tease out the curious connection between logging restrictions and the rise of wild mushrooms in American culinary culture. And they learn about promising new research that started with a shiitake-infused cutting board and may end up combating antibiotic-resistant infectious diseases with personalized mushroom therapeutics.

Episode Notes

Maine Cap N' Stem Mushroom Company

Lions Mane GM 300Husband-and-wife team Erik and Kathleen Lomen and their business partners grow some of Maine's finest mushrooms at Maine Cap N' Stem Co. in Westbrook, Maine. You can find their fungi at Maine's restaurants and farmers' markets, as well as order mushroom cultures and dried reishi from them directly online.

Lion's Mane mushroom growing at Maine Cap N' Stem Co., photo by Geoff Manaugh.

Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms

Eugenia Bone is the author of Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms, among many other books. Her essay on the history of amateur mushroom foraging in America, including the unfortunate but pivotal death of Count Achilles de Vecchj, was published in Edible Manhattan.

The U.S. National Fungus Collections

The U.S. National Fungus Collection is housed within the USDA campus, in Beltsville, Maryland. Mycologist Lisa Castlebury, an expert on smut fungi, kindly gave us a tour.

Lisa Cynthia Mushroom Hat
Lisa Castlebury shows Cynthia a hat and purse made from mushrooms at the U.S. National Fungus Collections. Photo by Nicola Twilley.

Jonathan Reisman, physician and mushroom forager

Turkey Tails 250Jonathan Reisman, who took Cynthia out foraging in the Boston suburbs, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times called Learning from Fungi: Of Medicine and Mushrooms. In the piece, he recounts learning to recognize edible mushrooms at the same time as he was learning to diagnose diseases.

Turkey Tail Mushrooms spotted growing just outside Boston, photo by Cynthia Graber.

Tradd Cotter's Mushroom Cutting Boards

Tradd Cotter of Mushroom Mountain Farm has published his instructions for making your own anti-microbial mycelium cutting boards in his book, Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation: Simple to Advanced and Experimental Techniques for Indoor and Outdoor Cultivation.


  1. Yummy. I love mushrooms, but I am too scared to go foraging them myself. I applaud those who venture forth to forage. Especially after the loss of Hildegard, who was a mushroom hunter and fruit grower force of nature. I sincerely regret not being able to visit her garden on a tour when I belonged to the local Tree Fruit Society (it was because my garden was also part of the tour).

    On a lighter note, I am very lucky that dear spouse makes his Saturday morning goal to walk from our house and up three block long flights of the 52nd St. urban stair climb to Seattle’s University District’s farmer’s market to get me morels in the spring and chanterelles in the fall.

    • I feel the same way. I love mushrooms, but am too scared to go foraging for them, fearing that I’ll poison myself LOL Even when people who “know” how to forage mushroom here where I live offer to go along, I end up being too scared to actually do it. So, I end up waiting for them to be available at the local fruit and vegetable store, which isn’t very often 🙁 Great episode!

  2. Fantastic episode! Mushrooms are among my favourite foods, and I didn’t realise how much science was behind growing/cultivating them. It’s ironic because I’d experienced this first hand! At uni I did a research project on Penicillium, and to store our different mutant strains, I had to “trick” the fungus into creating spores, then use the spores to coat rice grains. The spore+rice mix was then freeze dried and stored in tubes – talk about a “scientific mushroom risotto”!

  3. Love mushrooms and loved this podcast. Lucky here in Maine to have access at farmers markets year round. I likely have had Erik’s.

    I have heard that mushrooms of any kind should not be eaten raw because we do not digest them well and because we only get nutrition from cooked mushrooms. It would be great to hear more about this should you do a future episode on the subject.

  4. Two of my favorite things: mushrooms and a new Gastropod episode.
    Thanks for the great show. We grow shiitakes here, for ourselves and to sell at the farmers market. We also enjoy foraging. Last night we had a delicious casserole made with a chicken-of-the-woods that we found growing at the base of old oak tree. Yummy.

  5. Being from Romania and having family in Transylvania, I was very intrigued by the hat and purse “made of mushrooms”. It’s the first time I hear about such a thing, so definitely there is no tradition for that here. But as a scientist, I would like to know what exactly these artifacts are made of. Maybe there is a market for mushroom textiles? With modern biotech one can probably produce some “fabric”.

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