‘The fungal awakening’: how we came to love (and fear) fungi

After centuries of fear and disdain, mushrooms are having their moment. From sci-fi smash hits to drug trials, an emerging league of mycophiles are bringing fungi out of the shadows

Some people are drawn to beautiful birds. Others are enamoured with orchids. There are those who are mesmerised by the kaleidoscopic swish and sway of tropical fish. But mention you’re interested in fungi, and you’re likely to be met with a raised eyebrow, a sideways glance, or perhaps even a choked-back guffaw. You may even watch faces warp from expressions of interest to ones of disgust. Fortunately, however, things are changing, and fungi are finally being looked at anew by homo sapiens.

Fungi have endured a long history of neglect and disdain. In 1887, British mycologist William Hay commented how he who studied fungi “must boldly face a good deal of scorn … and is actually regarded as a sort of idiot among the lower orders”. A few years earlier, nature writer Margaret Plues observed how the stranger, “blinded by conventionalities”, sneered at those seeking fungi. Unlike birders who look upwards for their charismatic avian delights, fungus hunters glance downwards, for what the “father of modern taxonomy” Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus referred to as “thievish and voracious beggars”.

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