In an animated 1950s wonderland, a caterpillar sits atop a mushroom and watches on as Alice takes a bite of fungi and grows to the size of a house. Blue-hued Smurfs live in a suburbia of shroom homes. Decades later, popular video game stars Mario and Luigi unlock superpowers by scooping up spotted mushrooms. And in 2022, a shroom boom is alive and well, with fungi’s popularity doubling in size overnight.
Mushrooms are the new black, and spores are everywhere. The pandemic’s DIY renaissance helped fuel both a foraging frenzy and an at-home growing craze. But that’s not all. In high fashion, vegan leathers made from fungi mycelium are inspiring top designers. In the wellness world, meanwhile, mushrooms are being bottled and capsuled with plentiful purported benefits. And in our homes, we’re decorating with nature motifs and one day could be insulating our houses with fungi-derived materials. Mushrooms are even being employed in bioremediation to clean up after disasters like wildfires and oil spills.
So why now? We’re fascinated with fungi because they’re a symbol of a simpler past — and future. “We’re remembering the things we forgot long ago,” says mycological entrepreneur and influencer William Padilla-Brown. “Foraging isn’t a form of escapism from the pandemic — it’s a reconnection. We’re realizing the future is the same as the ancient past. All things new are things ancient Egyptians used to do.”
Author and environmental anthropologist Gina Rae La Cerva agrees. “We want to re-experience a time when being human meant something different than it does today, with the benefit of being able to escape back into the comforts of domesticated civilization whenever we like,” she explains.
Mushrooms are sprouting in the depths of our desires because they’re a symbol of vitality and creativity, reminding us what’s possible. As it turns out, the possibilities are pretty endless: The global mushroom market was valued at $58.8 billion last year and will reach an estimated $86.5 billion by 2027, according to market research firm IMARC.
Plus fungi are popping up in places you might not expect. New Hope Farmacy in Minnesota is one of the largest indoor mushroom farms across the country. The brick warehouse is so discreet you wouldn’t know hundreds of mushrooms are being expertly cultivated inside, including the rare cordyceps. Difficult to grow commercially, this hyped aphrodisiac carries a price tag north of $9,000 a pound. New Hope Farmacy CEO Mohamed Sewidan is intent on developing the mushroom hub of the Midwest and one day changing the medicinal mushroom world.
The plant-based eating movement is no doubt helping drive demand, spurred on by dual concerns for the environment and our personal health. This is where shrooms shine, with their nutritional value, savory umami flavor and hearty, meat-like texture. Herbivores can score everything from mushroom jerky to beefy patties and “meatballs.” And varieties like shiitake, portobello and king oyster have been popular meat substitutes for decades.
Foraging for these earthly delights is not a novel concept, but its resurgence during the pandemic reflects our collective yearning for self-sufficiency and mobility. “We don’t have control over our food systems, so people forage to feel more in control of their food and to access flavors they can’t normally get,” says Rae La Cerva. “It’s grounding and creative during a time that seems restrictive. Humans evolved to be biophilic; we feel better when we’re out in nature. Our brains evolved to forage, find flow and survive.”
Mirroring the cycles of nature itself, mushrooms’ popularity periodically blooms. During the height of the Renaissance, for instance, dietetic manuals asserted that the key to a happier existence was eating closer to the source. People rebelled against domestic cooking during the 1800s and went out into the woods to forage for the original prehistoric remedy. Indeed, mushrooms have been exalted as a superfood since the beginning of time, recognized by Greek physician Hippocrates and in Chinese medical texts for their healing properties.
And our ancestors were onto something. The power of mushrooms is impressive, with benefits encompassing boosted immunity, increased energy, enhanced mood and more. Nowadays, wellness wares like lion’s mane capsules and shroom-based face serums are all the rage. Self-care fanatics lace their coffee with reishi-cacao mix and sprinkle adaptogenic mushroom protein powder into their smoothies. Plus mushroom compounds are proving effective in helping treat depression in clinical trials.
It was only a matter of time before fungi rooted their way into fashion, with top designers like Stella McCartney leading the way. A vegan and prominent animal rights activist, she recently joined forces with Adidas, Lululemon and Gucci parent company Kering to help develop Mylo, a mushroom leather. McCartney worked alongside scientists to perfect the material’s texture and weight, and last year she revealed the first-ever Mylo garments, a jet-black bustier and utilitarian trousers (modeled by Paris Jackson, no less).
McCartney isn’t the only designer under mushrooms’ spell. Spring 2021 couture was all about chanterelles: Rahul Mishra’s collection mimicked shrooms’ shelf-like patterns, while Iris van Herpen was inspired by fungi’s sensual shapes and sprawling underground networks. “During the pandemic, there has been a realization of our own fragility on this planet,” van Herpen told Harper’s Bazaar. “More and more, I started to see couture as a platform for new ideas.” Even leather-loving luxury fashion house Hermès is getting in on the action, unveiling a vegan version of its popular Victoria handbag made with mycelium.
Never late to a trend, celebrities are wearing mushroom motifs on their sleeves — quite literally. Model Bella Hadid has been spotted sporting Frasier Sterling shroom earrings and carrying a vintage leather bag etched with fungi designs. Actor and red carpet scene stealer Timothée Chalamet made cottagecore look chic in a custom Stella McCartney mushroom suit for last fall’s debut of the film Dune. Of course, these shroom stylings are nothing new; they hark back to the sixties and seventies, when trippy mushroom motifs were everywhere. The allure? Spores have spunk, jam-packed with mystical symbolism and optimistic eco-friendly flair.
In the home, fungi are the new flowers, showcased in furnishings, artwork and the like. Dreamy pastel mushroom lamps had a major viral moment across Instagram last year thanks to social media influencers like Scandinavia’s Pernille Rosenkilde and Simone Noa. And high-end purveyors like Highsnobiety and Mr Porter could hardly keep the Elder Statesman’s luxe cashmere mushroom pouf in stock. But the home shroom boom extends beyond simply decor. Companies like UK startup Biohm are creating biodegradable mushroom-based building materials, such as insulation made from mycelium. Although development is still in the early stages, these eco-friendly alternatives show great promise in helping address climate change challenges.
So could mushrooms really be the world savior we’ve been seeking? Maybe. Fittingly dubbed “trendy trash monsters” by The New York Times, fungi thrive on waste. Case in point: Oyster mushrooms soak up heavy metals and break down petroleum hydrocarbons, and they’ve been used to reduce toxic ash runoff from California wildfires. Fungi have also been fashioned into an eco-friendly membrane that could one day be instrumental in providing safer drinking water. Suddenly, magic mushrooms have a deeper meaning.
All this helps explain why humans have been fascinated with fungi for centuries. Before beloved children’s book author and illustrator Beatrix Potter penned The Tale of Peter Rabbit, she honed her watercolor skills by creating botanical artwork. Her passion for mycology is reflected in the hundreds of mushroom images she painted. In England, shrooms entered the popular imagination during the 19th century, the first time in modern history that they were viewed as something other than a symbol of decay. And they continue to inspire today.
“Mushrooms are very ripe in terms of pushing creative thinking,” notes Rae La Cerva. “The diversity of art and recipes you can make with mushrooms is so incredible. We’ve been looking at this black-and-white world, but really it’s full of colors and shapes. We can’t capture the complex, stunning quality of the natural world, but we can express the deep unknowable beauty of being alive. Mushrooms are a way to find that inspiration.”
In short, these seemingly insignificant organisms have a unifying quality that spans both time and space, their root-like structure a genesis story for human creativity — and perhaps even the earth itself. “Mushrooms are on the roots in all plants, doing a job that’s making everything work,” says Padilla-Brown. “Yeasts in algae go up into the sky and make clouds. Yeasts in our stomachs help us digest. Without fungi, life lacks complexity. We’d probably be on a two-dimensional plane.”
Our obsession with mushrooms, as it turns out, is only natural. They help us reconnect with the world around us in a purer, more innocent way. They blend a trippy, technicolor nostalgia for the past with an optimistic blueprint for the future. Most of all, they prove that hope blooms in dark places. Today’s shroom boom confirms that spores are here to stay.