CA Mushrooms
CA Mushrooms

Book Review

Fungipedia: A Brief Compendium of Mushroom Lore

By Lawrence Millman
2019, Princeton University Press
ISBN 9780691194721
Hardback, 208 pages, 51 b/w line drawings

Lawrence Millman is a Contributing Editor of FUNGI and author of numerous books, including Our Like Will Not Be There Again, Last Places, Fascinating Fungi of New England, and At the End of the World and has written for many trade magazines that everyone has heard of. His writing assignments have taken him all over the world; he’s come back with amazing tales from Greenland, Honduras, Iceland, Panama, the Canadian Arctic, Bermuda, as well as his home turf in New England. He may not always be writing about mushrooms and other fungi, but they are always on his radar. Especially the tiny, odd things that most mycophiles fail to notice. So he is just THE person to write such a book as Fungipedia.

But what IS Fungipedia? At the outset of the book, in the Preface, Millman does describe this little book as NOT a mushroom guide book, but rather a compendium of arcana of all things fungal. “… the goal of this Fungipedia has not been to surround its subject with a plethora of question marks. Quite the contrary. The goal has been to provide the reader with a basic window on fungi and, in doing so, inspire that reader to gaze on all fungi, even the nasty ones, in wonder.” It’s part mycological glossary, part random thoughts on mushrooms and fungi—and people who have studied them. And it’s a pure delight! Indeed, about the aforementioned Preface: this has to be one of the best essays overviewing the mycological world I’ve ever read. It is simply not possible to read those pages and to put this book down.

Millman offers a feast of ecological, ethnographic, and occasionally odd facts about fungi. Fungipedia presents a delightful A–Z treasury of mushroom lore. From Agarikon to Zombie Fungus. From Alice in Wonderland, to medicinal applications of chaga by northern native peoples, Millman explores every corner of the fungal world with a delightful balance of scientific fact, cultural content, and uproarious wit.

Combining ecological, ethnographic, historical, and contemporary knowledge, Millman discusses how mushrooms are much more closely related to humans than to plants, how they engage in sex, how insects farm them, and how certain species happily dine on leftover radiation, cockroach antennae, and dung. He explores the lives of individuals like African American scientist George Washington Carver, who specialized in crop diseases caused by fungi; Beatrix Potter, creator of Peter Rabbit, who was prevented from becoming a professional mycologist because she was a woman; and Gordon Wasson, a J. P. Morgan vice-president who almost singlehandedly introduced the world to magic mushrooms. Millman considers why fungi are among the most significant organisms on our planet and how they are currently being affected by destructive human behavior, including climate change. With more than 180 entries—on topics as varied as Alice in Wonderland, chestnut blight, medicinal mushrooms, poisonings, Santa Claus, and waxy caps—this collection will transport both general readers and specialists into the remarkable universe of fungi.

— Review by Britt Bunyard
— Originally published in Fungi