Mushrooms Have Entered the Mainstream

London National Park City Ranger Mike, based in Waltham Forest, was inspired to launch the London Fungus Network in August 2020. But Mike hasn’t always been fascinated by fungi, and even told me he had the fungal fear he witnesses in so many others up until he started to discover more about mushrooms in his twenties.

Learning about wild food and foraging eight or nine years ago gave Mike “a newfound interest in plants and ecology,” which ultimately led him to discover his interest in fungi and helped him “form a new relationship with nature in the city”. 

Now Mike aims to “connect humans with the urban fungal kingdom in London and beyond” through the London Fungus Network, which hosts forays, walks and other events (like the annual Shroom Sunday festival) that “help people get to know their fungal neighbours” and introduce them to a whole new world beneath their feet.

Ranger Mike in woodland with fungi

“Most people expect to find mushrooms in ancient woodlands, in the wilderness or in nature reserves”, says Mike, but when he started noticing mushrooms in the city, it helped him slow down and be more mindful, connecting with nature in his everyday life. “Mushrooms remind us that these other organisms – whether it’s fungi or plants and animals – are our neighbours that we share the city with,” he says.

Whether you live in suburbia or in a built-up concrete town, “you will never be far from nature”, says Mike. The key is to “slow down your pace of life”, and things will start to appear, “whether that’s wildflowers growing through cracks in the pavement or mushrooms growing out of a street tree”. And there’s so much to be seen in London!

While events that connect people with fungi (where Mike might get to witness people “tickling a jelly ear” for the first time) are exciting, the London Fungus Network also helps to connect people with each other too.

Whether they’re mushroom growers, artists, photographers, mycologists, writers, performers or total mushroom novices, London Fungus Network brings people together, and Mike has noticed there does seem to be “something about fungi that inspires” and harbours a sense of community.

Mike does admit that fungi can be a little intimidating though, and even he was “baffled” by them in the beginning. “It felt like you had to be a wizard or have like three PhDs to identify wild mushrooms” at first, he said. But gradually, after going on various courses and reading a lot of books, he was able to identify a handful of fungi. “And then that was it. I was addicted”. 

Mike started noticing mushrooms everywhere, and became determined to identify as many as he could, learning which were edible and which weren’t. Ask any mycophile, Mike says, and they’ll tell you, “Once you get hooked, there’s no there’s no turning back. They’ve changed your life forever”.

The London Fungus Network website says they want to take people “from fear to fascination”. But when I (an amateur forager with very little mushroom knowledge) was growing oyster mushrooms in my kitchen and sharing the fascinating process on Instagram, most of the replies I got were from freaked out viewers of The Last of Us (which is set during a Cordyceps fungal pandemic). I wondered if Mike thinks stories like this help or hinder the cause? 

Having not seen the show (or played the game), Mike wasn’t sure if he was qualified to comment, but said that while he’d like to see pop culture “move away from scaremongering”, he does believe “anything that makes people aware of fungi and the fact they play a really important role in ecosystems and in human health and culture” has to be a good thing.LFN article 3

And more people do seem to be interested in mushrooms than ever before. Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life (How fungi make our worlds, change our minds and shape our futures) won a slew of awards and was featured on several bestseller and must-read lists in 2020.

During the pandemic, mushroom growing kits sold out from many retailers in the run up to Christmas, and friends of mine who have never shown any interest in nature suddenly found themselves watching Fantastic Fungi on Netflix to pass the time. As Mike says, having an interest in mushrooms has definitely become “a bit more mainstream and normalised”. “Now it seems like if I bring fungi up at a dinner party or down the pub, I’m less of a social misfit”.

I asked Mike if he had any tips for people interested in getting involved in local green grassroots initiatives, and his advice was to “just throw yourself into it”. There are lots of opportunities out there if you spend some time looking (may I recommend the London National Park City community?).

“Follow your gut feeling and whatever your interest is, you don’t need to be a so-called eco person who knows how to identify plants”. All you need to do is “harness your interests to explore and enhance nature”.

So, if you’d like to explore whether your interests lie in fungi, or you want to go from fear to fascination, you can find London Fungus Network events and news on their website or stay up to date on Instagram.

Mike was interviewed by Zabby Allen, a London National Park City Ranger from Bromley. Zabby is a forager-in-training who helps people connect with nature through her weekly newsletter, The Nature Notice Board, and through Wild South London Community, a new group she recently founded with a group of other nature enthusiasts from south London.

*Credit for forest photo: Kaamilah Nahaboo*

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