Fungophobia is a term coined by William Delisle Hay, the noted British mycologist (a person who studies fungus, including mushrooms), in 1887. He was one of the first to speak about the social or cultural fear of mushrooms that he saw in England.

He wrote that all mushrooms…

…are lumped together in one sweeping condemnation. They are looked upon as vegetable vermin only made to be destroyed. …the individual who desires to engage in the study of them must bodly face a good deal of scorn. He is laughed at for his strange taste among the better classes, and is actually regarded as a sort of indiot among the lower orders. No fad or hobby is esteemed so contemptble as that of “fungus-hunter”, or “toadstool-eater.”

This popular sentiment, which we may coin the word “fungophobia” to express, is very curious. If it were human – that is, universal – one would be inclined to set it down as an instinct, and to revere it accordingly. But it is not human – it is merely British. It is so deep and intense a prejudice that it amounts to a national superstition.

This fungophobia spread with colonization to the Americas and Australia. If you were raised as I was, in a culture derived from the British expansion around the world, then you may have the same fear of mushrooms. Now this may not be the same type of bladder-releasing fear as a person with acrophobia (fear of heights) when standing at the ledge of the Grand Canyon. It may express itself as a general aversion to seeing mushrooms popping up in your yeard, or it may be a slight terror in seeing a child play with mushrooms because they might take a bite of one and start convulsing and die while you watch. You may feel comfortable eating button mushrooms on your pizza, but those “new” mushrooms in the produce section of the grocery store make you feel a little nervous. If your neighbor told you he went out in the woods and came back with some edible mushrooms, you would wonder how long until the ambulance arrived next door.

Mycologist and brilliant author, David Arora, writes…

Bring home what looks like a wild onion for dinner, and no one gives it a second thought – despite the fact it might be a Death Camas you have, especially if you didn’t bother to smell it. But bring home a wild mushroom for dinner, and watch the faces of your friends crawl with various combinations of fear, anxiety, loathing, and distrust!

…for there are few things that strike as much fear in your average American as the mere mention of wild mushrooms or “toadstools.” Like snakes, slugs, worms, and spiders, they are regarded as unearthly and unworthy, despicable and inexplicable – the vermin of the vegetable world. And yet, consider this: out of several thousand different kinds of wild mushrooms in North America, only five or six are deadly poisonous! And once you know what to look for, it’s about as difficult to tell a deadly Amanita from a savory chanterelle as it is a lima bean from an artichoke.

Let me repeat one phrase in there again: Out of several thousand different kinds of wild mushrooms in North America, only five or six are deadly poisonous! Then why the fear?


Common Puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum) releasing spores

I remember kicking puffballs and throwing them at my older sister in my backyard when I was three or four years old. I don’t remember who told me this, but I distinctly remember being told not to touch them, for if the “smoke” from the puffballs (the spores, in reality) got into my eyes, I would become blind. In my research for this article, it turns out that puffballs causing blindness is a common threat to deter kids from playing with them; two other local British names for the Common Puffball (Lycoperdon perlatum) are “blindman’s bellows” and “no-eyes”. I wouldn’t have even been able to associate puffballs with a typical mushroom at that age, yet that was my introduction to the world of mycology. It took at least twenty years before I finally began to shake the irrational aversion to mushrooms, and then it took another ten or so before I was growing mushrooms (on purpose!) in my bathroom… much to my wife’s dismay.

I recently added the Mycelial or Fungal Layer to the Layers of the Edible Forest Garden (you can read my article here). I realized that the initial seven layers were created by a Brit! Robert Hart developed the forest garden for a temperate climate, but did not include the essential mycological layer… fungophobia may partially be to blame.

As a physician, it is not uncommon for me to see patients with phobias to one thing or another. The common theme in treating phobias is the same… education. Once a person really starts to understand and comprehend all the aspects of the item they fear, the fear starts to diminish. In the next few weeks, I am going to be sharing some basic information on mushroms from a list compiled by David Arora called Seventy Distinctive Mushrooms. I want to show the beauty of mushrooms. I also want to show their variety and differences. I want to provide just a little bit of education to start breaking down the fear of mushrooms. I want to fight fungophobia!


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