It's been 60 years since the world first watched a band of button mushrooms grand-jeté across projection screens in "Fantasia." There is a lot to unpack about the film more generally, and its "mushroom dance" scene alone remains in the canon of successful character animation. The seven fungi have no dialogue and possess no limbs with which to articulate. But they are as fantastically demonstrative as any in the Disney repertoire.
Six decades later, the clip remains a fitting depiction of an organism as enigmatic as the mushroom. These fleshy, spore-bearing beings have cults of personality all their own, bringing long-fabled psychedelic and medicinal qualities to the otherwise unassuming produce section. To this day when I see a carton of creminis all tucked into their containers, I may or may not find myself fantasizing about them popping out one by one and launching into a campy, spotlit line dance.
Mushrooms have been a cornerstone of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) for thousands of years, only more recently representing a growing cultural fascination with nature and all we may have to gain from its ecosystems. Across fashion and retail, health and wellness, the wonderfully weird fungi signify much for which we as a fatigued and immunity-obsessed world is yearning.
So maybe you, like me, have been particularly attuned to their little fruiting bodies after seeing them grace dad caps and drop earrings and sundresses made by Danish fashion labels. That gentle uptick in mushroom-adorned apparel has been closely documented by trend-forecasting agency WGSN.
"We've been tracking a host of brands tapping into all things magnificently mushroom and bringing a fascination with our natural surroundings into collections, from youthy streetwear brands exploring trippy motifs to ultra-feminine jewelry adorned with fungi-inspired charms," writes Polly Walters, an associate editor in womenswear, in an email. "Universally understood as weird and wonderful, mushrooms offer a motif that can easily transcend product categories."
Mushrooms have earned their role as a decorative mainstay not simply due to their playful appearance. Walters explains that their natural health benefits are an increasingly top priority for health- and wellness-minded consumers, who, she says, feel burnt out from mass digital consumption and the overwhelming anxieties of society. So while the fungi have proven medicinal properties, they also tend to something more intangible: a sense of fascination with and escapism to the organic outdoors, where there is no WiFi reception in sight.
In 2016, researcher Nadine Joseph was working at a lab at University of California, Berkeley studying the neuroscience of stress when she herself began experiencing the same chronic stress symptoms she was analyzing: overexhaustion, sleeplessness and a consistent sense of anxiety that permeated her life.
While first prescribed a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI), an antidepressant that works by increasing levels of serotonin within the brain, Joseph also doubled down on her own stress research. It was then that she encountered adaptogens. These non-toxic plants and herbs have been used for centuries in Chinese and Ayurvedic healing traditions and aid the body in resisting stressors of all kinds.
All mushrooms contain a type of complex carbohydrate called beta-glucans, soluble fibers that stimulate your nervous, endocrine and immune systems and even help suppress tumor growth. So in addition to herbs such as ashwagandha, tulsi and maca, mushrooms like chaga, cordyceps and lion's mane, as well as the more famous reishi, offer long-term physical, neurological and immunological benefits.
"I found myself looking at adaptogen companies and trying to order my own blends of reishi mushrooms," says Joseph. "Because I come from a scientific background, I wasn't excited about the options I had. A lot of traditional, commercial companies weren't showing the percentage of beta-glucans that were in the mushrooms I was buying."
So Joseph began ordering directly from farms, with bulk-sized bags of mushrooms, herbs and roots soon taking up significant real estate on her kitchen counter. In 2019, she founded Peak and Valley, a conscious wellness company that offers the same neuroscience-backed medicinal mushroom and adaptogen blends with which she began experimenting in her home years ago.
Peak and Valley currently offers three blends, each of which has been formulated to protect the body against stress while enhancing brain function, fighting inflammation and balancing mood. The formulations contain phytonutrient-dense extracts from various mushroom species, including organic red reishi, lion's mane, tremella fuciformis and organic cordyceps.
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No one species of mushroom with which Peak and Valley works is any more functional than the other. Take cordyceps, which begins its life growing as a parasite inside another animal, typically on caterpillars, before ultimately killing its host. In TCM, cordyceps has been used for centuries to bolster stamina and endurance; today, it appears in Peak and Valley's Nurture My Skin Blend.
"Right now, modern science is really just catching onto what healing traditions like TCM and Ayurveda have really just known for thousands of years," says Joseph, "which is that mushrooms and adaptogens can have really profound effects on the body."
In 2012, Four Sigmatic Founder and CEO Tero Isokauppila launched his mushroom-enhanced food and beverage company in his native Finland with these same beliefs. Growing up on a generational farm that's been in his family since the early 1600s, he spent a better part of his childhood in the woods, learning to forage the acreage and later winning a Finnish innovation award for discovering a particularly rare culinary mushroom. When it came time for Four Sigmatic to scale beyond the Baltic Sea, Isokauppila had his work cut out for him.
"I can tell you that when I brought the business to the U.S. in 2016 and my goal was to get Americans drinking mushrooms, it was really wild," says Isokauppila. For a long time, people were blown away when I said that was what I was working on. It was a really tall order to get Americans to drink mushrooms."
Mushrooms are already mysterious natural beings. And while it's certainly an American experience to be skeptical of something that isn't presently in our cultural lexicon, mushrooms often elicit a reaction that's more in line with fascination than cynicism. In "Fantasia," the dancing fungi are adorable, not threatening.
"A lot of people look at them as vegetables, but they're their own kingdom in biology," says Isokauppila. "We share up to 50% of our DNA with mushrooms. Mushrooms are needed for all plants to collect water. Mushrooms are in up to 40% of our pharmaceuticals. Mushrooms are needed for making any fermented product. There's a big connection there. They're part of our daily life. We just don't know it."
Both Isokauppila and Joseph know their consumers are increasingly stressed, but they're also increasingly curious about looking for alternative, perhaps more natural treatments.
"We as a nation are sick and we are stressed," says Joseph. "I don't think it's a surprise that people are trying to find ways to heal themselves holistically."
The U.S. was already in the throes of a mental health crisis — anxiety disorders affect an estimated 18% of U.S. adults — before the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Now federal agencies and experts warn that the country is ill-prepared for the psychological trauma associated with frequent and prolonged exposure to death and isolation.
Isokauppila finds that Covid-19 has launched the burgeoning mushroom fixation into hyperspeed, with droves of consumers either developing or heightening their interest in long-term immunity support. Mushrooms, if you've heard, can help with that. But they're not currently helping everyone.
"One big, big problem with the wellness industry is that it really just caters to Caucasian women with a disposable income," says Joseph. "That's seen in every single marketing message. I am a woman of color in the wellness space, and it's pretty frustrating to see that minorities in general just aren't being represented in an industry that's supposed to be about self-care and mindfulness."
That exclusion has been top of mind for Joseph, who has taken careful consideration of the ways in which Peak and Valley's BIPOC community, from farmers to suppliers to consumers, may feel represented in her brand. That begins, but doesn't end with its jars, the designs for which Joseph did herself. "They have a woman of color on each and every one of them," she says.
"Another step toward diversification in this space is just respecting these Eastern self-care practices and herbal medicines that we're incorporating into Western wellness," says Joseph. "A lot of these practices come from people of color. They're going through this process where people of color are slowly phased out of it."
For Joseph, that goes beyond packaging, also ensuring that the people who first introduced healing mushrooms into the Western wellness sector are actually visible within the space. That means, she says, giving them space to tell their side of how they want to use the fungi.
Joseph is enthusiastically optimistic about a mushroom-laden future, expecting them to soon sprout into "every aspect of our way of life." Walters, the WGSN trend-spotter, looks at the toadstools from a narrower retail perspective: Still relatively niche within apparel, she anticipates a surge in the mushroom motif to appear via calming botanical illustrations or trippy, hyper-real photo-prints. Mushrooms may even affect our behavior.
"With far-flung travel off the cards for the foreseeable future, consumers are actively seeking a sense of rural escapism for their staycations," writes Walters. Indeed, camping, RV and road trip essentials are seeing double- and triple-digit growth in sales, according to Kampgrounds of America's 2020 North American Camping Report. "Getting back to nature, or 're-wilding' is driving this renewed interest in natural, shroom-y visuals."
Perhaps all this may encourage you to scoop up a bushel of shiitake in your next visit to the produce section, where you'll simply dice up the dancing mushrooms into a risotto rather than wearing their likeness on an $800 picnic dress. Still, enigmas they will be.
"Of course, when you're eating them in a soup or you're having them grilled, they're high in umami and that's why they have that savory, meaty flavor," says Amanda Chantal Bacon, who includes adaptogenic mushrooms in her Los Angeles-based wellness line Moon Juice. "But then you're like, no, there's definitely something else going on there. It tastes like flesh."