Alexis Williams


Infamous Fungus



Infamous fungus. Mysterious, discrete, misunderstood. Infamous fungi rather, but weather you say it the spongy way or the amusing-dude way the word undulates awkwardly.  The singular ‘fungus’ has a wicked ring to it while still sounding sultry and hypnotic, an utterance equally gnarly and graceful, it’s hiss is as stylish and subtly potent as what it signifies.  Although the singular “fungus” sounds suitably dank and esoteric, it’s just not copious enough. The dorky mutated plural ‘fungi’ conjures visions of countless, crowded, trooping, gregarious species of mushrooms and rightly so. There are lots of them. The grocery store button mushroom is one of a prolific 5 million estimated fungal species.



If no one picked that tidy button mushroom, its veil would fall, the cap would open and it would grow up to be a Portobello. Cremini and Portobello are the same species at different stages of life. They are the unassuming favorite mushroom of western cuisine but these conservative fungal representatives do not accurately express the whole spirit of the mushroom. Perfectly common mushrooms seem outrageous and exotic in comparison. Some of the most ubiquitous mushrooms are branched like coral, some are hard, long living shelves on tree trunks, some are tiny, delicate and ephemeral and most of them are routinely overlooked. There are mushrooms that grow not far from here that have eyelashes or shoot cannon balls. Some of them are shaped like stars, or cages, or eggs, or nests full of eggs and they come in every color, with different personalities, habits and roles in the environment.

  One of six kingdoms of life on this planet, fungi are not plants at all. Fungi are Plants’ eccentric great aunt. The one who reads Plants’ tea leaves and sends Plants cryptic postcards from her world travels. Plants hopes to inherit Great Aunt Fungi’s collection of shamanic paraphernalia, antique hats and the motor bike side car, but Fungi is such a stubborn old lady, having already survived 5 mass extinctions on earth, her will isn’t likely to be read any time soon.  Today’s mushrooms are more closely related to the vampire bat, octopus, firefly or a murmur of starlings than they are to a tulip or a zucchini. Over a billion years ago fungi were the first life form to creep from the sea and live on land. Several million years later plants followed. Several hundred million years after that the animal branch on the tree of life diverged from the ancestral line of fungi, that is to say: we evolved from fungi.  Infamous fungi.  

  Mushrooms have a gentle tenacity. They are flowers without thorns. Their grace is delicate without the imposing hardness of a tree’s wood.  They never scratch, growl or burp. They are shy and often go unnoticed. Their modest lifestyle as the quiet neighbour who keeps to herself has helped brew a reputation for being dark and dangerous. Despite Fungi’s soft spoken nature she is very active in the community. Mycelium is the mass of long white threads that is inconspicuously present almost everywhere.  It grows unseen underground, inside living trees or dead wood, in dung and in living or dead creatures, interacting with and playing a vital role in all ecosystems on earth.  Just as a tree can produce apples for a hundred autumns, these mycelial masses are the long living individuals that produce the short lived mushrooms. 

Plants passionately grow flowers to flirt, proudly exposing their sexual organs to potential pollinators. But the impressively complicated genetic swapping of mushrooms is done in private underground. They do produce fertile fruit out in the open but their fruit, mushrooms, don’t sow seeds as plants do.  With the help of a warm breeze they spread tiny, microscopic spores.  Under the cap of the button mushroom are gills, dog eared pages printed with letters of DNA that tell an ancient story through akashic records, star charts and old family recipes. It’s these pages from where spores are released. These breathless gills wait for the wind to carry their spores to a suitable neighborhood for starting new colonies. The mushroom spore is so tiny and so well suited to floating that after liberation from the gill, it can stay air born indefinitely. Its cell wall is so sturdy that it reliably keeps its contents safe even outside of our atmosphere. They travel stealthily, quickly and cover vast distances. There are spores that have been circulating the circumference of the planet in a perpetual state of possibility for life times, as packets of vital ingredients complete with the recipe for primordial stew waiting to be unpacked by the right conditions.  



This strategy is effective, butnot all mushrooms have gills. Some have tubes and some have teeth.  Birds nest fungus, which look like tiny nests filled with even tinier white eggs, wait in anticipation for the right rain drop which is destined to fall exactly inside its tiny bullseye. The droplet will splash out of the nest ejecting the spore bearing eggs into the air, initiating the celebratory uncoiling of a tether. If successful this sticky coil will wrap around a twig and hold the spores high up for the wind to carry them away, like streamers and confetti at a debutant ball.


The grotesque, rotten meat smell of the stink horn is irresistible to creepy crawlies who get covered in sticky spores and spread them to new necks of the woods. Knowing that insects are attracted to smelly mushrooms, toads use them as a hunter’s blind, waiting faithfully for foraging flies. Slugs are also seen on the caps of mushrooms eating fungal flesh. The image of a mushroom as a stool for a little animal is common in fairy tales but it’s hard to know where the term toad stool, the name given to all inedible or poisonous mushrooms, actually came from. Todesstuhl translates from German to death’s chair and is indeed where death sits.

  According to sutra the Buddha’s last meal was sukara-maddava, which is suspected to be the misidentified poisonous mushroom that killed him.  One in five of the known species of mushrooms are poisonous but only 1% is deadly.  Still, fatal mushroom poisonings happen after foragers misidentify a poisonous species as an edible one.  Although more than just a taste is needed to have a serious effect, death by mushroom toxins is particularly long and unpleasant, slowly shutting down vital organs over weeks.  There is no antidote for some of the most commonly ingested poisonous mushrooms.  The Caesar mushroom is an edible mushroom that was loved by Roman emperors and was a favorite of Claudius, who is rumored to have been murdered by his wife with poisonous mushrooms. She served his Caesar mushrooms with another amanita on the side, the Death Cap.


Of the estimated 5 million fungal species of mushrooms, only about 100 000 have been studied.  We don’t know as much about fungi as we do about plants or animals partly because until recent centuries studying them was discouraged by the church as they were suspected to be connected to the devil. Like the Death Cap, the common names of some dangerous mushrooms give warning to their effects: Sweet Smelling Poison Pie, Destroying Angel, Deadly Galerina, the Devil’s Bolete, the Sickener and Tipplers Bane.  No thanks to their noxious notoriety many harmless mushrooms have ominous names: dead man’s fingers, weeping widow, trumpets of the dead, corpse finder, the Devil’s cigar, witches’ broom, witches hat and witches butter.


  The Cordyceps mushroom is a master zombimificator. It claims its slaves by ensuring that its spores are inhaled by innocent insects. The spores grow inside the host’s living body and take control of the insect’s behaviour. The Ophiocordyceps unilateralis infects the carpenter ant causing it to behave irrationally until, always at noon, it sinks it’s mandibles into the underside of a leaf and dies. By sunset, a mushroom erupts from the head of the ant, who is hanging over the foraging trails of his former colony. Spores drop down and infect new ants, perpetuating the cycle.  Healthy ants know the symptoms of a cordyceps infection. They recognize the danger and banish infected ants as far from the colony as possible. There are thousands of cordyceps species who each attack a different insect species.  Winter Worm / Summer Grass is a translation of the Chinese name for the caterpillar mushroom, because it appears to be both an animal and a plant: What was a caterpillar in winter, come summer, sprouts into a long spindly mushroom. It’s this cordyceps that attacks ghost moth caterpillars and is used medicinally to strengthen the immune system and to increase endurance and sexual vigour. 
  The inhabitants of earth are diverse and live amongst each other, inside each other and on top of each other surviving by an unfathomable web of intricate relationships; not a balance but a constantly changing struggle between living organisms competing for the necessities of life. The result is not harmony but a cacophony of continued biodiversity, each species influencing the survival of many others, each playing a role in the ecosystem.  The liminal existence of composite organisms like lichen, each species with genes from two different kingdoms, illustrates that not all organisms are autonomous; the human body for example is an ecosystem: a micro biome of many living organisms with complex relationships from the beneficial to the detrimental. Of all the living cells on earth 25 % are fungi.  Of the 100 trillion living cells in your body only 10% are human. They serve as the stage (habitat) for the human biosphere. The rest are non-human cells like fungi, bacteria and larger parasites that together make up the human biome, an eco-system specific to each individual person. These organisms help us to digest our food, keep us safe from harmful infections and perform all sorts of beneficial jobs vital to our survival.