Book Review

Mycelium Running:
How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World

By Paul Stamets
2008; Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, CA
ISBN: 1-58008-579-2; paper; 352 pp; $35.00

A new, “Expanded Edition” of Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World has just been published and merits a second look at this book that first made a huge splash in 2005. New in this 2008 edition are the latest information on aquatic Basidiomycetes, antimircrobials, and the “discovery” of Prototaxites¸ considered by some to be a huge fungal fruitbody from the Cretaceous.

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Mycelium Running is a good book. Make that, a great book. This book is a must read for everyone—not just mycophiles. In his latest tome, Paul Stamets—the guru of mushroom cultivation and of psilocybins—is back with more than just a how-to guide for the grower. Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World has a message for mankind. The bad news: the planet’s health is going down the tubes and mankind is to blame. But Paul offers hope: we can change the world and clean up our act. There have been a lot of people talking about “hope” and “change” lately, but Stamets backs up what he says. Stamets has developed techniques for cleaning up the environment and substantiates it with success stories—from the small scale, at his personal farm, to large scale in collaboration with big-league researchers at Batelle Labs, just to name a few. And his successes have been built on the ever-industrious fungal mycelium…and his own ingenuity.

But Mycelium Running isn’t solely about environmental remediation, although it’s a recurring theme. This book (and it’s a pretty big book; at $35 it’s a good value for this textbook-sized volume) runs the gamut from mushroom cultivation to cooking; from mushroom identification to medicinal properties.

Mycelium Running is comprised of three parts: The Mycelial Mind; Mycorestoration; and Growing Mycelia and Mushrooms. The first part is comprised of chapters dealing with general information about fungi. Well, chapters 2-4 are general information. Chapter 1 is titled “Mycelium as Nature’s Internet” and is a little more philosophical. But Stamets comes back down to earth, literally, with chapters 2-4, titled “The Mushroom Life Cycle,” “Mushrooms in Their Natural Habitats,” and “The Medicinal Mushroom Forest.”

The second part, Mycorestoration, has four chapters on environmental science in general, and saving the planet—the mycelial way—in specific. Chapters 5-8 are “Mycofiltration,” “Mycoforestry,” “Mycoremediation,” and “Mycopesticides.” Despite the sublime titles, I found this section to be far and away the most interesting of the three. But then I have quite a few semesters’ worth of teaching mycology and environmental science under my belt. Nevertheless, Mycelium Running is my first brush with combining the two subjects. Paul’s ideas are every bit as intriguing as his results are astounding. In “Mycofiltration” Stamets outlines how mycelial spawn (fungal hyphae grown on any number of substrates: straw, grain, corn cob wastes, and wood chips) can act to cleanse water of all sorts of contaminants. A big source of water pollution in the US is runoff from livestock feedlots and other farm settings. The author demonstrates how some well-placed sacks of wood chip spawn will not only remove the nutrients and bacteria, but the correct fungus can thrive on this eutrophic brew—with the end result a beautiful flush of edible mushrooms! In “Mycoforestry” Stamets pulls from his background as a former logger to explain why it is a misnomer to call forests a “renewable resource.” (At least with current management strategies.) “Mycoforestry” offers ways to recycle wood (encourage natural wood decay, rather than burning), employment of mycorrhizal fungi, and mycofiltration of silt as ways to manage forests that are more in tune with natural processes. You won’t believe what Stamets gets mushrooms to do in “Mycoremediation.” Mushroom mycelia is used in a number of experiments to degrade, in many cases, or remove from the environment in others, all sorts of toxic materials: petroleum products, organic wastes, even chemical warfare agents like sarin, VX, and other neurotoxins. And Paul’s got the patents to back up the work, carried out with colleagues at Batelle Labs. The hyperaccumulation of radioactive isotopes from the environment by mushrooms is discussed. Wild mushrooms have been found to accumulate, within their tissues, levels of isotopes many times higher than the soil in which they are growing. As an example, this was (and remains) a big concern in parts of Europe where fallout from the Chernobyl disaster. But with this knowledge Stamets has shown that mushrooms can, literally, pull the contamination right out of the soil. The picked mushrooms then can be taken to a proper containment facility, thus obviating the need for expensive—and environmentally destructive—soil removal. “Mycopesticides” explores the development of several ingenious ways of killing pests with naturally benign fungal mycelium, in lieu of dumping more chemicals into an already saturated environment. Again, Stamets’ necessity ends up being the mother of his inventions. His own house—literally being turned into sawdust at the hands, er, mandibles of carpenter ants—was the perfect lab to try different types of insect killing fungi that he’d cultured on Petri plates. His fungi did the trick—and earned him another patent—but couldn’t save the house that was already too far gone.

Part III of Mycelium Running is the longest part of the book and is a tour de force in mushroom cultivation. Beginning with such self-explanatory chapter titles as “Inoculation Methods: Spores, Spawn, and Stem Butts,” “Nutritional Properties of Mushrooms,” and “Gardening with Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms” the author then winds up with “Magnificent Mushrooms: The Cast of Species.” The last chapter gives a good overview of cultivated species, including methods, medicinal properties, and mycorestoration abilities.

There are loads of illustrations throughout the book. One other strong point of this book is that there are plenty of references at the end for the reader to look into for additional information. Mycelium Running gives a ton of useful and important information and is an enjoyable read. I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in mycology or nature, or simply the health of the planet. I’m confident that many of the techniques pioneered by the author will be standard practice in the future. The planet would benefit from a few more like Paul Stamets.

— Review by Britt Bunyard
— Originally published in Fungi

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