When John Michelotti came to live in the Catskills about ten years ago, he was already a firm believer in the fabulousness of fungi, though not yet a fully credentialed mycologist. An “outdoor guy” by his own description, the Westchester native had begun exploring the Southwest while attending the University of Arizona. Afterwards he traveled a great deal, always gravitating toward gigs that didn’t involve being stuck in an office all day. He worked in construction, on organic farms, and as a boat captain.
He also did a lot of volunteer work for not-for-profit organizations. One of these was at a nature center, where he first found himself entranced with the brilliant color of a red waxy cap mushroom (Hygrocybe coccinea). “I was living in Rye at the time, so I decided to join the Connecticut/Westchester Mycological Association. These became my people,” Michelotti recalled.
He had also cultivated an ongoing relationship with the Student Conservation Association, both as an intern and an employee — which entitled him to a stipend to be spent on an educational internship. So it was that in 2011 Michelotti took his growing interest in the mushroom world to Ecuador to study how mycologists were using fungi to do ecological bioremediation of oil spills.
He describes the experience as eye-opening. It pointed him in the direction of how he wanted to focus the rest of his career. “After that, I started touring mushroom farms,” he said.
Having relocated to the Catskills, he found himself one day stopping into the High Falls Food Co-op en route to a hike. There he noticed that, though many locally produced herbal remedies were available, all the medicinal mushroom tinctures were imported, mainly from the Pacific Northwest.
“If you could get these locally, would you carry them?” he asked the storeowners. The answer was a resounding yes, In short order, Michelotti founded Catskill Fungi, LLC, and established a factory with a commercial kitchen. A year later, he had enough mushroom extracts on hand to be making the rounds of the region’s farmers’ markets. He’s been going to them three times a week for nine years.
Like many mycophiles, Michelotti was first attracted to mushrooms for their myriad culinary uses, and he still champions eating them both for health and pleasure. “Incorporating mushrooms in your diet more is one of the best things you can do,” he said.
He recommends laying them in sunlight, gills-side-up, for four to six hours before cooking, to boost their vitamin D production. Aside from their medicinally active ingredients, the fibers in mushrooms — not cellulose, as in plants that photosynthesize, but chitin, like the exoskeletons of insects — serve as excellent prebiotics, “which help feed healthy gut bacteria,” he said, adding, “Fermented foods are created by fungi.”
Ready for a mushroom walk?
Catskill Fungi cultivates mushrooms and hosts workshops at its Education Center in Big Indian on how to inoculate a substrate with culinary mushroom spores for home growing. But Michelotti pointed out that it’s a process best done outdoors: “Mushrooms grown indoors are ‘babied.’ They’re never exposed to pathogens. The same mushrooms grown outdoors become extremely hardy. They have to create extracellular metabolites, because they’re exposed to many microbiomes.”
As with the ambient yeasts (which are microscopic fungi) in the air that are an essential component of the terroir of a region’s craft beers and distilled spirits, or the pollens that make locally sourced honey protective against allergies, getting your fresh wild mushrooms from your own neighboring woods helps maximize their health benefits.
If you want to learn how to forage choice edible wild mushrooms for your own table, one of the mushroom walks conducted by Michelotti and his staff at Catskill Fungi is a great place to get started. Besides the regularly scheduled public explorations, you can also book a private walk on your own land to identify what species you have available, and how to tell the edible ones from those best left alone.
The main danger here — as we discovered on a Catskill Fungi mushroom walk led by Michelotti and his fiancée, Gabriela D’Elia of the Fungal Diversity Survey. is not the likelihood of eating a misidentified toadstool. In fact, they tell us, you can’t get poisoned simply by touching or picking even the most toxic mushroom; you have to ingest it. They possess no “transdermal toxins.”
One of our group even brought back to the picnic table what was tentatively identified as a destroying angel (Amanita verna), one of the deadliest of mushrooms. “If you ate that, you’d have to get a liver transplant within 72 hours,” warned Michelotti. Among his many professional roles is being a poison control consultant for the North American Mycological Association. “If anyone eats a mushroom and gets sick, I’m the one who gets the call.”
D’Elia, whose personal mission is to find rare fungus species of the Northeast and identify brand-new ones, gushes as much at the sight of a deadly mushroom as a delicious one: “I love amanitas,” she said. “They’re so beautiful!”
That enthusiasm quickly became contagious. On our walk, we only spotted a few edibles, but were all quickly caught up in the leaders’ admiration for the beauty, diversity and sometimes downright weirdness of the fungus among us. If we weren’t already mycophiles going in, we were upon coming out.
Most mesmerizing by far of what we learned on that day was the part of the fungal world that we couldn’t see: the underground empire of mycelium, the fibers that criss-cross the soil beneath our feet, breaking down nutrients so that plants can digest them, literally communicating information from one tree to another. “Mycelium is really the immune system of the forest,” said Michelotti. “In every square foot of soil there’s a mile of mycelium.”
Without fungi, apparently, life on Earth as we know it would cease to exist.
This is as good a place as any to note that fungi are not plants — nor animals nor protozoa — but a separate kingdom of their own. In fact, they share more DNA with Homo sapiens than they do with plants. We were on the same branch on the tree of life on Earth for a while, early on.
This factoid might ring a bell if you’re a fan of the post-apocalyptic HBO series The Last of Us (or the videogame on which it’s based), in which most of humanity has been wiped out by a strain of the Cordyceps fungus that has mutated to be able to use us as hosts.
There’s some scientific basis for that story’s premise: The Cordyceps genus of fungi is parasitic. Most of its 600 or so species grow on the bodies of insect larvae. They occur worldwide, and have been used in Chinese medicine for more than 1500 years. One of the six medicinal mushroom extracts sold by Catskill Fungi, Cordyceps is believed to promote and support energy, stamina and libido, along with respiratory, kidney and liver health, adrenal function, blood-sugar balance and immune response. Noting that it helps with energy release at the cellular level, Michelotti recommended taking it especially before a workout to enhance the benefits of exercise.
“I take Reishi, Lion’s Mane and Cordyceps every day,” he says. “I take Chaga every now and then, if I’m around sick people. Turkey Tail and Maitake I take if I get a cold. That chases away a cold pretty quickly.”
Catskill Fungi mushroom extracts come in two-ounce bottles (a month’s supply) and are priced at $28 each. Except for the Cordyceps and Lion’s Mane, which are locally farmed, they’re prepared from sustainably harvested, wildcrafted mushrooms. Each one is produced using a triple-extraction process that combines an alcohol tincture, a cold-water infusion, and a hot-water decoction. Some of the active ingredients — sterols, polysaccharides and so on — are best soluble in water, others in alcohol. They respond differently to heat.
Here’s the rest of the list of recommended applications:
• Reishi (Ganoderma tsugae/Ganoderma lucidum): immune response, histamine response, blood pressure, nerves, respiratory, liver, sleep.
• Maitake (Grifola frondosa): immune response, blood sugar, prostate, breast, stomach, liver.
• Lion’s Mane (Hericium erinaceus): brain function, brain tissue, nerves, synapses, gastrointestinal function, memory.
• Turkey Tail (Trametes versicolor): immune response, liver, prostate, breast, lung, kidney.
• Chaga (Inonotus obliquus): immune response, stomach, liver, skin, intestines, digestion, detoxification.
Of course, the guidance that Catskill Fungi provides regarding which extract to take for what health goal must be qualified with a disclaimer: “These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease and is for educational purposes only.”
That’s despite the fact that many of these remedies have traditional uses in herbal medicine going back many centuries. Said Michelotti, “I can’t say ‘antiviral,’ even though some of them have that effect.”
Most of the clinical studies of these mushroom extracts to date have been carried out in Asia, and don’t necessarily conform to Western medicine’s expectations regarding sample size, double-blind testing, use of placebos, and so on. They also tend to be holistic, rather than isolating a single active ingredient. “These are often potent compounds. You can’t patent the mushroom, so there’s no incentive for pharmaceutical companies to fund studies,” Michelotti noted.
He himself is a fan of the scientific method. “I haven’t gone a lot by what’s ‘traditional.’ I go by the book,” he said. “I went through all the scientific studies; then I combined them in these triple extracts.”
His book of choice for the layperson is The Fungal Pharmacy: The Complete Guide to Medicinal Mushrooms and Lichens of North America (2011) by Robert Rogers. He also finds the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s database on herbal supplements to be a useful resource (www.mskcc.org/cancer-care/diagnosis-treatment/symptom-management/integrative-medicine/herbs). Much of what he recommends to customers is shaped by the experiential feedback he gets from users of the mushroom extracts, he added.
There are hopeful signs that medicinal uses of mushrooms will soon be better documented. Lion’s mane, for instance, has shown promise in recent studies as promoting regrowth of nerves and possibly even deterring Alzheimer’s disease.
The psychotherapeutic uses of psilocybin — hallucinogenic “magic mushrooms” — are also now being studied again, after half a century of total prohibition since the Nixon administration. Federally approved testing is now in progress at several major university medical centers for the first time since Timothy Leary’s intriguing studies in the 1950s and 1960s of the use of psilocybin to alleviate depression and help people overcome addictions.
Since 1970, psilocybin has been classified as a Schedule I drug, defined as having “a significant potential for abuse and dependence” and “no recognized medicinal value.” In 2019 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted psilocybin “breakthrough therapy” status, which expedites the assessment of promising drug therapies for potential approval.
Research funding is beginning to flow. Besides recent studies already showing that it has long-term positive effects for depression, it also may be effective in treating obsessive/compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, alcoholism and cluster headaches.
Taking a mushroom walk with Catskill Fungi won’t teach you how to find, process and use “magic mushrooms.” But it will certainly serve as an inviting gateway to the broader and deeper magic of the mushroom world. To learn more, or to find out where you can purchase mushroom extracts, visit https://catskillfungi.com. To get involved as a citizen scientist with the Fungal Diversity Survey, visit https://fundis.org/protect/northeast.