More spores in store
Austin author highlights 75 weird, delicious, and creepy fungi in enchanting coffee table book
It's not mush ado about nothing — mushrooms live rich little lives in more places than people expect. (They also live big lives, if you're thinking about the world's heaviest edible fungi specimen weighing in at 100 pounds in 1990). They cure diseases, play big roles in spiritual rituals, and remove unwanted substances from the forest floor.
All this and more is ripe for exploration in The Little Book of Mushrooms, an Austin author's newest contribution to the world of fungi, out May 2. Alex Dorr already has lots of influence in this realm, through his Austin-based "functional mushroom" company, Mushroom Revival Inc., as well as the widely respected Mushroom Revival Podcast, and the Mycoremediation Handbook, actually his academic thesis about using mushrooms to clean up their environments.
This new written venture is more of a coffee table treasure, with hand painted illustrations (by Sara Richard) and approachable language that enthusiasts and newbies alike may idle among for hours. The Little Book of Mushrooms catches readers up to speed with geographic and growing locations (basically where they grow and what they grow on), characteristics, and uses, including lots of info about edible types and dangerous lookalikes.
The 75 mushrooms profiled were chosen both to cover a basic need-to-know selection as well as more morbid curiosities, such as Cordyceps caloceroides, which infects tarantulas and may grow as long as a human forearm. The book doesn't take a regional focus, but many of its subjects appear in Central Texas. Chorioactis geaster, also known as the "Devil's Cigar" or "Texas Star," is not just the state mushroom — it was discovered in Austin in 1893, and lives a curious double life here, in the mountains of Japan, and nowhere else, as far as scientists know. The strangest part: The two have been separate for more than 19 million years.
"I have ADD, so I love books that allow you to flip to a random page, read a couple of pages and then put it down," says Dorr. "This is one of those books that you can read cover-to-cover...or you can flip to a random mushroom, and that's your mushroom of the day — you read a couple pages about that mushroom, then you put it down, and you can go about your day."
Even though he wasn't in Texas yet, Dorr got acquainted with mushrooms in much the same way as many Austinites — that is, in college, recreationally. Then at Hampshire College in Massachusetts, he found that his new hobby freed him of pharmaceutical use, drinking, and smoking cigarettes, seemingly effortlessly. Every mushroom-related class Dorr could find made its way onto his schedule.
"Since they radically changed my life — pretty much overnight — I asked the question, 'Well, if these mushrooms could do that, what else is out there?'" says Dorr. "I discovered that you can grow them for food, for medicine, for building materials — they pretty much can solve most of our biggest world problems. And they're severely under-studied. ... We have only really discovered about one percent of all fungi."
Now in Austin, Dorr gets involved in the mushroom community at large through Mushroom Revival, sometimes doing giveaways, emceeing events, and teaching workshops with the Central Texas Mycological Society. The podcast airs weekly interviews with experts in the field of fungi from all over the world.
"A lot of people don't know anything about mushrooms or fungi, and that they're their own kingdom of life," says Dorr. "I think they're the underrepresented stewards of our planet, and they go pretty unacknowledged and unappreciated. And so, I think step one is just acknowledging that they're there."
The Little Book of Mushrooms is out now in hardcover and ebook formats at simonandschuster.com.