Book Review

Mini-reviews of Psilocybe books

Last year’s special issue featuring morels featured a number of mini-reviews of books about them. Because that seemed popular with readers, we decided to try it again for this Psilocybe issue. As you might expect, compared to morels, fewer books have been written on psilocybes, with most focusing on the blue-staining ‘magic mushrooms.” For these reviews, we selected works aimed primarily at identification, rather than the use and cultural significance of these mushrooms. Of the nine books included here, seven appear to be readily available based on internet searches in early June 2011, although in some cases not particularly cheaply.

They fall into four categories: 1970’s vintage slender guidebooks (the first six titles), a color field guide, a technical monograph, and a legal primer. If you’re looking for a useful resource for identifying psilocybin mushrooms, Stamets’s 1996 guide is the clear choice.

A Key to the American Psilocybin Mushroom

By Leonard Enos
1971 revised edition (Softcover, 81 pp.)
Church of the One Sermon, A Youniverse Production
Original price $5.00(?)

A rather poorly produced little guide, not well organized, with considerable mis-information. The mycological information seems to have been taken from the literature with little hint that the author had much personal expertise or experience with mushrooms other than ‘shrooms,’ and a substantial portion of the book is devoted to Subud (an international spiritual movement that began in Indonesia in the 1920’s), which has little or nothing to do with mushrooms, psilocybin or otherwise. Illustrated with not-too-bad colored drawings that were produced from black-and-white photos. Despite the title, there is no key. Of little use for identification purposes.

Field Guide to the Psilocybin Mushroom Species Common to North America

By F.C. Ghouled
1972 (Softcover, 16 pp.)
Guidance Publications, Chapel Hill, NC
Original price $1.45

Ostensibly a guide to Psilocybe cubensis, P. subbalteatus, and P. caerulescens that can be used with “no chance for error.” Contains descriptions and a smattering of other information, far too much of it lacking in detail, of questionable validity, or just plain wrong. For instance, Amanita muscaria is referred to as Mexico’s ‘magic mushroom’ and is said to be “sometimes found in woodland areas of the U.S. South.” The illustrations consist of a few poor-quality color and black-and-white photos. Of virtually no use for identification purposes.

Magic Mushrooms: A Guide to 12 Hallucinogenic Species of the Pacific Northwest

By Everett Kardell and Robyn Stitely
1975 (Softcover, 33 pp.)
Santiam Publishers, Eugene, OR
Original price $3.00(?)

Another cheaply produced little pamphlet by mycologically less-than-knowledgeable magic mushroomers. It appears to have been printed by a mimeograph-type process directly from a typed manuscript. Typo’s abound and two pages are blank in my copy. Mostly consists of descriptions of the 12 species, not all of which typically contain psilocybin and psilocin. The descriptions are accompanied by poor-quality line-drawings, many of which were copied from the paintings in the Enos book. Of little use for identification purposes.

Hallucinogenic and Poisonous Mushroom Field Guide

By Gary P. Menser
1977 / ISBN 0-915904-28-4 (Softcover, 141 pp.)
And/Or Press, Berkeley, CA
Original price $5.95

Menser’s book is the first that could be considered reasonably reliable. It is well organized and includes a key to both the hallucinogenic and poisonous species, good descriptions, and generally accurate line drawings of the species. Although some of the information is now dated, and there are occasional mistakes, Menser clearly had a great deal more general mycological knowledge and experience than the authors of most of the books of this generation. Still a useful volume, especially when used in conjunction with more comprehensive recent field guides.

How to Identify and Grow Psilocybin Mushrooms: Field Guide, Indoor-Outdoor Cultivation

By Jule Stevens and Rich Gee
1977 (Softcover, 84 pp.)
Sun Magic Publishing. Seattle, WA
Original price $5.95

A wide-ranging little book, more professionally produced than some of the others of this period. It has more detailed information on cultivation than the other books, supported with black-and-white photos. The identification section comprises less than half of the book. It covers (briefly) about a dozen species of Psilocybe, a few Panaeolus species, and a collection of poisonous mushrooms, only one of which (Galerina autumnalis, = G. marginata) could be considered a look-alike for the psilocybin mushrooms. A number of mostly poor to mediocre black-and-white and color photos accompany the descriptions. Perhaps of some use for identification purposes, but better options are available.

Psilocybe Mushrooms & their Allies

By Paul Stamets
1978 / ISBN 0-930180-03-8 (Softcover, 160 pp.)
Homestead Book Co., Seattle, WA
Original price $9.95

This is clearly the best of the 1970’s magic mushroom books. It provides sound advice (such as emphasizing the need to learn about all mushrooms to provide a broad context), keys, good descriptions, and, for the most part, decent color photos of a broader range of species than is included in the other books from this period. For instance, the Preface cautions that “None of the professed ‘field guides’ on psilocybian mushrooms acknowledged the importance of studying Psilocybe in relation to all fleshy fungi. Rather they boldly suggested an amateur should go into the field and try to find hallucinogenic mushrooms given only isolated descriptions of a few species. This narrow approach to mushroom identification is dangerously inadequate.” Still useful for identification, but Stamets’s more recent book (below) is more comprehensive and up-to-date, has better photos, and appears to be available for a bit less on the used-book market.

Psilocybin Mushrooms of the World: An Identification Guide

By Paul Stamets
Paul Stamets
1996 / ISBN 0-89815-839-7 (Softcover, 229 pp.)
Ten Speed Press. Berkeley, CA
Original price $24.95

This is the most recent of the books about psilocybes and their ilk, and the one that will be of most use to most mushroom-hunters interested in identifying them. It is essentially a field guide. Up-front chapters include sound information on psilocybes from a historical perspective, their ecology and distribution, a closer look at six common habitats, the dangers of mistaken identification, tips for great trips, and how to collect and identify psilocybin mushrooms. The main portion of the book covers the main psilocybin genera (Panaeolus and Psilocybe), the minor psilocybin genera (Conocybe, Gymnopilus, Inocybe, and Pluteus), and deadly look-alikes (in Galerina and Pholiotina). A single key to the genera of dark-spored agarics is included. The descriptions are good and include information on the potency of each species where it is known. The photos are in color and mostly of good to very good quality.

There is much good advice such as “be cautious and not let your enthusiasm replace good judgment” when identifying mushrooms for possible consumption, and experience-based guidance for consuming them. However, there are a number of other statements that might not resonate with some readers. For instance, “The way these mushrooms have evolved in close association with humans suggests an innate intelligence on the part of the mushrooms.” If true, it seems we would have to ascribe the same innate intelligence to corn, wheat, rice, tomatoes, hamsters, starlings, bedbugs, athlete’s-foot fungus, and the myriad other organisms that prosper in association with humans and our modified environments. Regarding the discovery of a single mushroom thought to be of a previously undescribed species, Stamets suggests that “Perhaps, some would say, this mushroom has remained hidden only to call out to the chosen one who found it, so she could give it to me to clone.”

Regardless of how you feel about such philosophical musings, this is the book to get if you want to identify psilocybin mushrooms.

The Genus Psilocybe:
A systematic revision of the known species, including the history, distribution, and chemistry of the hallucinogenic species

By Gastón Guzmán
1983 / ISBN 3-7682-5474-7 (Hardcover, 439 pp.)
J. Cramer
Vaduz, Germany
Original price DM200

This is a typical professional monograph dealing with the genus as generally accepted during the latter half of the 1900’s and early 2000’s. It is lengthy, contains numerous keys and extensive descriptions, supported with good-quality line-drawings of fruiting bodies and microscopic features. It also includes a number of black-and-white and color photos that range in quality from fair to excellent. A good resource for someone equipped with a microscope if you can find a copy.

Note that the concept of Psilocybe, like many other mushroom genera, is undergoing considerable change. Particularly in Europe, the recent trend has been to include the stropharias and hypholomas (naematolomas) in a larger Psilocybe because of the difficulty in finding characters with which to cleanly separate these genera. In addition, molecular data have suggested that Psilocybe (in the usual sense) should be divided into at least two groups, with the blue-stainers falling into a group for which a new genus name would be needed.

Sacred Mushrooms & the Law, 2nd edition

By Richard Glen Boire
1997 / ISBN 1-890425-00-1 (Softcover, 69 pp.)
spectral mindustries, Davis, CA
Original price $9.95

The one exception to our focus on identification guides, this is a summary of the laws and other legal aspects of psilocybin, psilocin, and the mushrooms that contain them. However, from a practical viewpoint, such a guide seems hardly necessary if one considers that possession of psilocybin and psilocin is a crime throughout the U.S. Although apparently the laws have not been enforced to this extent, in many states, a home- or landowner could be prosecuted if psilocybin mushrooms were found on his/her property, regardless of whether she/he knew they were there and what they were. Boire makes much of the fact that the laws are written in terms of the active compounds, not the mushrooms that contain them. However, the cases he describes suggest that defendants arrested for possessing psilocybin mushrooms have had little or no success pursuing a defense strategy that makes use of that distinction. Of interest for those who want to understand the legal background associated with magic mushrooms. A 2002 edition is also available in about the same price range.

— Review by Steve Trudell, Seattle, WA
— Originally published in Fungi