Mushrooms are loved, despised, feared and misunderstood. They have been a familiar part of nature throughout human history and occupy a special place in our consciousness. Nicholas P. Money introduces the mythology and science of the spectacular array of fungi that produce mushrooms, the history of our interactions with these curious and beautiful organisms, and the ways that humans use mushrooms as food, medicine and recreational drugs.
Mushrooms are not self-contained organisms like worms or beetles. They are fruit bodies, or reproductive organs, produced by fungi whose feeding colonies, or mycelia, are hidden in soil or rotting wood. These colonies support life on land by decomposing plant and animal debris, fertilizing soils and sustaining plant growth through partnerships called mycorrhizas. Some of the fungi that produce mushrooms cause diseases of trees and shrubs, and the airborne spores of others are a major cause of asthma and hay fever. Mushrooms release so many spores into the atmosphere that they may affect local weather conditions and promote rainfall. Poisonous mushrooms were described by classical writers and edible species were important in Roman cuisine. Mushrooms became the objects of scientific study in the seventeenth century. Pioneers of mushroom science have included paragons of eccentricity, and their remarkable stories are celebrated in this book.