Best of America

Paul Stamets and the Healing Power of Mushrooms

Paul Stamets and the Healing Power of MushroomsIsaac Hernandez

Our hero: Paul Stamets, 55
Where he lives: Kamilche Point, Washington
How he helps: Protects the mushroom

“My parents told me to stay away from mushrooms, that their spores would blind me,” says Paul Stamets good-naturedly. Nevertheless, Stamets has devoted his life to the humble fungi, studying mycology and in 1980 founding the company Fungi Perfecti, which sells mushroom cultivation kits.

Why mushrooms? According to Stamets, many of the estimated 150,000 species of mushrooms have environment-healing properties. For example, the oyster mushroom can break down oil from spills. The King Stropharia mushroom filters bacteria like E. coli
before they get into the water supply. And the turkey tail mushroom may help strengthen the immune systems of women with breast cancer, according to government-funded research aided by Stamets and his team.

“One of my core beliefs,” Stamets says, “is that humans and habitats have immune systems, and the mushroom’s network of cells is a bridge between the two.” A mushroom’s cells also encourage new growth in old-growth forests. “The mushroom creates soil and fosters other life in the soil. Without healthy soil,” he warns, “we don’t have life.”

To demonstrate this, Stamets has invented the Life Box, a cardboard carton embedded with tree seeds and fungi. “Each box can become a forest,” he says. “Get the box, tear it up, plant it, and little trees come up.” (Stamets adds, “My grandson felt like a parent. He asked me why all cardboard boxes aren’t Life Boxes.”) It’s Stamets’s way of driving home the notion that small, individual actions have earthshaking potential.

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