Samhain Mushroom Magic

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We are sinking into the darker half of the year. The season is almost palpable here in the Pacific Northwest. Everything smells of damp earth and woodsmoke. Bright red, yellow, and orange leaves pop against a backdrop of dark evergreen. After a dry and smoky summer, it’s misty and magical in these woods and there are mushrooms…everywhere.

To me mushrooms are the quintessential being of Samhain. They embody so much wonder and mystery. A kingdom that holds the powers of life, sustenance, medicine, and death. An entity containing such magic that it can link entire forests together through its underground networks. An organism that both helps the forest to thrive and also itself flourishes on that same forest’s decay. The parts of a mushroom that we see springing up from the forest floor or the decaying log of an old growth tree are just the fruiting body of the plant. Most of the plant is hidden underground, where vast networks of mycelium run underneath the forest floor. They remind us that there is only a thin veil between our world and another.

EDIBLE:

In the Pacific Northwest we have many species of edible and medicinal mushrooms. Pictured above is a Coprinus Comatus or Shaggy Ink Cap. It is quite safe to eat and easy to identify. Coprinus Comatus has a distinctive hairy/shaggy cap and as it releases its spores it turns into a pile of black goo, which has been used as an ink substitute. It also has a distinctive ring around its stipe. There is another variety of ink cap that grows in clusters that is also safe to eat but should not be consumed with alcohol as it can alter the way the alcohol is metabolized causing alcohol poisoning. Another couple of common and easy-to-identify edibles in the PNW are Morels, Chanterelles, Fairy Ring Mushrooms, Common Puffballs, Chicken of the Woods, Boletes, and Oyster Mushrooms. Many of these varieties grow in other parts of the country and the world. If you’re interested in mushroom foraging I recommend picking up a field guide for your local area. We have the Timber Press Field Guide for our area, it covers all of the species, edible and otherwise, and we love it.

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MEDICINAL:

We have two especially potent medicinal mushrooms that grow wild in our woods - Red Belted Conk (Fomitopsis pinicola) and a couple varieties of Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma oregonense and Ganoderma applanatum).  All are considered adaptogenic medicines.  “Adaptogens or adaptogenic substances are used in herbal medicine for the claimed stabilization of physiological processes and promotion of homeostasis” (Wikipedia, 2018).  In other words, adaptogens serve as a gentle tonic to all body systems, helping our bodies to handle physical and emotional stressors.  Both Red Belted Polypore and all Reishi varieties are also know to have anti-tumor, anti-bacterial, anti-viral, anti-oxidant, anti-pathogenic, anti-diabetic, and anti-inflammatory properties.  They spring from the side of fallen logs, especially douglar fir and hemlock and are quite easily recognized.  They do not have any poisonous lookalikes.  These mushrooms can be gently pried from the log or sliced off with a knife.  I wait until Autumn, when they have had a chance to release their spores, before harvesting.  Once harvested they must be processed quickly or they will become very tough and you will not be able to cut them.  They should be sliced or chopped and dried immediately or processed fresh into a tincture.  Here is what those processes look like:

To Dry:

As soon as possible after harvesting brush mushrooms clean and slice into 1/4” to 1/2” wide strips, then chop those into 1/2” pieces.

Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake on the lowest heat setting for your oven (mine is a convection oven and I bake at 170 degrees).

Once mushrooms are fully dry (usually 1-2 hours) turn off the oven and allow to cool completely, then store. 

You can use the dried pieces for tea or reconstitute for cooking or you can grind them to a powder with a spice grinder for use in smoothies and other cold or hot drinks or to encapsulate.

To Tincture:

1 Part dried mushroom

10 parts menstruum (50% alcohol, 50% distilled water)
(menstruum means solvent, it is a substance that dissolves solids or holds them in suspension)

Any 80 proof alcohol can be used for tincturing. I usually use organic vodka unless I want an additional layer of flavor. For example, when I make digestive bitters I use rum.

As tea:

Simmer dried mushrooms for several hours, add a little coconut or avocado oil to the tea to extract oil solvent constituents, add some tincture to your tea for extra potency. If the taste is too earthy you can add additional spices (like those in chai tea: ginger, star anise, cinnamon, cloves, black pepper, allspice) to make the tea more palatable.

MAGICAL & Historical:

Mushrooms have been used in magical work for centuries. Hallucinogenic mushrooms have been used by shamans and healers in many different cultures as part of ritual work and to induce shamanic journeys and to see glimpses of the “otherworld.” The amanita mushroom, for example, has been used for at least 6,000 years and across many cultures. We often associate images of the red-capped amanita muscaria with European fairy tales, but the amanita was also prized by the Aztecs and called the “light of the earth.” Of course, anything that produces hallucinations is also poisonous to the body at a certain dosage. You should never consume a mushroom who’s identity you are unsure of as some varieties can cause severe sickness and death in very small doses.

In many cultures mushrooms are considered to be connected with the underworld, the otherworld, or the fairy realm. In Celtic culture mushrooms that sprang up in “fairy circles” indicated a special place that the fae had been dancing or a portal to the realm of the faeries and if a human stepped foot in the ring she risked being taken to the fairy realm, never to return. In Germany these rings were called “witches rings” and in France they were known as “sorcerer’s rings.” In all cases humans were supposed to steer clear of these circular crops of mushrooms.

If you’re interested in learning more about the historical use of mushrooms, there is a wonderful post on the Wicked Griffin.

While in some traditions mushrooms are associated with the Winter Solstice, to me they perfectly capture the spirit of the Autumn season and Samhain. When the veil between worlds is thin, they are a reminder of unseen realms and the ever present cycle of birth, life, and death. This Samhain I will be harvesting a huge Reishi that is near our property and enjoying some spiced reishi tea while contemplating the wonder of nature, the web of energy that connects us to each other and to all living things, and the unseen realms beyond the conscious and material plane. 🍁 🍄✨