Mushrooms are the DMV’s most recent craze, and learning more about them can benefit people and nature alike.
From pop culture to citizen science, mushrooms are having a moment and the DMV is here for it. But the interest in fungi is far more than just a growing acceptance of and curiosity about psychedelics, the default association for many outside the mycology community. Mushrooms tap into countless trends, from vegan cuisine and adaptogens for health to the increasing number of people ditching their gym memberships for more functional forms of exercise, like long walks foraging for mushrooms. Fungi are all that — and many other things you never dreamed of.
Just ask Isaiah Bednash, who literally stumbled onto a mushroom patch in his backyard. The patch led him to a deep network just below the surface that, like the mushrooms themselves, had been hiding in plain sight.
“I posted on Reddit to figure out what the mushrooms were and ended up discovering the mycology community,” says Bednash, a resident of Clinton, Maryland.
Prior to encountering his backyard mushrooms, Bednash wrestled with an opiate addiction. Part of his fungal journey was trying psychedelic mushrooms.
“I had a really solid experience with psilocybin that stopped me from ever doing opiates again,” he says. “That was a one-time experience, but it was all I needed.”
Early on, a rabbit hole expedition through YouTube led Bednash to Willoughby Arevalo and his DIY mushroom cultivation book.
“The book shows how to grow your own oyster [mushrooms] in your shower, and it was like, ‘Oh, it’s that easy? Mushrooms can just grow in your bathroom?’” Bednash says. “My interest grew from there. I started to grow gourmet mushrooms after finding wild chicken of the woods and lion’s mane and culturing them.”
Like hundreds of other DMV residents, Bednash found a welcome home with the Mycological Association of Washington (MAW), a local nonprofit club of mycophiles in operation since 1970. MAW’s membership has more than doubled since the Covid-19 pandemic — from 421 in March 2020 to 894 members at last count. The tidal wave of interest seemed to coincide with the early days of lockdown when people had nowhere to go but outdoors.
Amy Wrobleski, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in ecology at Penn State University, decided to explore this trend in a more scientific way.
“I was at grad school when the pandemic hit,” Wrobleski says. “People started telling me that foraging groups online were exploding with interest, but there was no data to back it up. Had the pandemic really driven interest in mushroom hunting? Who hunts for mushrooms in our region? There are a lot of stereotypes and assumptions about these communities that I wanted to unpack.”
Roughly 1,000 people have responded to the survey Wrobleski launched last year, which largely reached people through local mycology clubs like MAW. While it’s premature to provide definitive results, so far the researcher has found the interest in mushrooms is diverse as their fans.
“Food and medicine are big components of the local interest in mushrooms, but people have mentioned lots of other topics as well, including DNA barcoding, photography, conservation and mushroom crafts, particularly for fabric and yarn dyeing,” Wrobleski says. “Respondents also talked about learning about mushrooms from their parents in childhood — but also adults teaching their parents how to mushroom hunt. Everyone is teaching each other.”
Bednash, too, sees people of all backgrounds and ages becoming more and more interested in fungi.
“A 67-year-old will come up to me at an event to ask about psychedelic mushrooms,” he says. “Meanwhile a 10-year-old kid will come up and name off multiple species from a table of mushrooms. Fungi are inherently multidisciplinary and can really bring people together.”
The motives for mushrooming reach far beyond personal enjoyment to furthering basic science, conservation, ecology and other intersectional areas of inquiry. Like many amateur mycology clubs across the country, MAW is furthering citizen science by hands-on projects sequencing the DNA of local wild mushrooms, information that ends up in data clearinghouses used by professional mycologists around the globe.
Without any prior scientific background, Bednash parlayed his passions into part-time paid work doing DNA sequencing, in addition to volunteering with MAW. Furthering the science is its own reward for Bednash, along with the potential to make breakthrough discoveries in this little understood corner of creation.
“We have found a ton of new species with our sequencing,” he says. “Around a third of the specimens we have sequenced have been ‘undescribed,’ meaning they have no formally recognized species names. It’s awesome that fungi are finally being seriously studied and their integral role in the ecosystem better understood.”
Chef, forager and entrepreneur Iulian Fortu has also carved out a niche and livelihood from his passion for mushrooms. After finishing culinary school, the Northern Virginia resident was exposed to wild mushrooms in-depth as an intern at the world-renowned Copenhagen restaurant Noma, where he developed a panoply of in-demand skills as a forager, fermenter and chef.
In 2019, Fortu started Arcadia Venture, his own business that supplies wild mushrooms and other specialty foraged ingredients to high-end kitchens and gourmet consumers around the DMV. His clients include Michelin-starred restaurants like The Dabney and Oyster Oyster, as well as more casual spots like ANXO Cidery, which has a strong focus on foraged ingredients in its food and drink menu.
Fortu’s work has now expanded into a business development position for the national online platform Foraged, networking buyers and sellers of wild specialty foods across the country.
“Many chefs were familiar with these ingredients already, but the consumer interest in foraged goods has really exploded since the pandemic,” Fortu says. “Mushrooms are not just the white buttons you see in the grocery store; there is a whole world of other species, and there is a benefit to learning about and consuming wild mushrooms responsibly. I’m also seeing a lot more people growing mushrooms at home, as well as more cottage-scale commercial producers. It’s a low-input product, and you don’t need 20 acres of land.”
While many DMV mycophiles are new to the world of mushrooms, for Tatiana Kolina, owner of the vegan Eastern European restaurant sPACYcLOUd, mushrooms were a sort of homecoming. Russian-born Kolina grew up spending summers with her grandmother in a village on the outskirts of Siberia, lingering in the forest for hours picking mushrooms and berries to preserve and trade.
“When I first opened sPACYcLOUd, I had lost that connection with mushrooms, but I suddenly thought of my grandmother, remembered these wild adventures and realized it was meant to be,” Kolina says.
sPACYcLOUd offers numerous mushroom dishes on the menu inspired by Kolina’s Eastern European heritage. The venue also connects with D.C.’s mushroom community in other ways, such as hosting events and dinners with MAW and even having DJs wire up mushrooms for sound to set the vibe for her funky Adams Morgan venue.
“It makes me really happy to reconnect with the magic and memories of the forest,” Kolina says. “I love the people coming out to experience mushrooms, and the excitement and creativity that comes with the mushroom community. It’s a new world, but it’s also the old world — and it’s mine.”
Learn more about Iulian Fortu and his mushroom business Arcadia Venture at arcadiaventure.com and @arcadiaventure. For more details on Kolina’s restaurant and lounge sPACYcLOUd, visit spacycloud.com and @spacycloud.
Want more insight on the best locals mushroom guides to follow? Join the District Fray community for exclusive access to guides and recommendations. Become a member and support local journalism today.