Paul Stamets has been studying fungus for nearly four decades, and sees mushrooms as the answer to medical and environmental ills.
Paul Stamets likes to proclaim that mushrooms will save the world.
To hear him tell it, they can soak up oil spills and filter contaminated streams, boost your immune system and control pests, lower cholesterol and make you smarter.
Part Willy Wonka and part mad scientist, the Shelton man has been studying fungus for nearly four decades. He hunts it, cultures it and grows it. He puts it under microscopes and dreams up experiments on it. He sells it, in many different forms, for many different uses. He also fries it up and eats it for dinner.
“That’s the unusual thing about Paul,” said James Nowak, a Seattle glassblower and avid mushroomer. “He’s able to discover these things. He’s really brilliant. He’s always thinking outside the box.”
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In the small but wildly passionate world of mushrooming, Stamets is a big name.
Talk to him long enough, however, and a certain thought pops into your head. Maybe it’s when he says he supplied government agencies with mushroom cultures for testing as anti-terrorism tools. Maybe it’s when he says he’s involved in research on breast cancer and tuberculosis. Or when you learn he is considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on hallucinogenic mushrooms. At some point, you’re going to wonder if he’s, well … full of it.
Then you start looking into his claims. And one by one, they seem to check out.
“A fantasy world”
Stamets, 55, neither works for a university nor has an advanced degree, but he holds three U.S. patents. Sometimes he speaks so fast, and so loftily, it’s hard to follow.
In 2008 he gave a talk for an internationally known, thought-provoking lecture series known as TED that began like this: “I love a challenge, and saving the Earth is probably a good one.”
He’s prone to the “audacious statement,” laughed John Goldman, treasurer of the Puget Sound Mycological Society. “But he really believes it.
“Like I say, he’s a visionary.”
Most mushroom businesses focus on one of two things: fresh or dried. Not Stamets’. He’s got so much going on, it’s easy to lose track.
He runs his company, Fungi Perfecti, from a wooded compound in Mason County. Outside the gates, several signs warn visitors they’re being videotaped or that they had better have an appointment. It seems a bit excessive.
Back in the 1980s, he started selling grow-your-own-mushroom kits. Each kit costs about $25 and produces 1 to 2 pounds of gourmet mushrooms. He has sold tens of thousands of them, many through ads in gardening magazines. It’s pretty straightforward.
Walk into one of Stamets’ “grow rooms,” however, and things get otherworldly. The ceiling is white, and the air is cool. Mist blows from fans that periodically kick on with a giant whoosh. There are tall shelves, rows and rows of them, stacked with blocks of white stuff. It’s mycelium — essentially the mushrooms’ root structure. From the blocks, alien life-forms burst forth every which way.
The aliens are mushrooms. Slimy namekos. Gray maitakes, almost like brains. Shaggy white balls called lion’s manes. Reishis, looking like red knobs of ginger with flying saucers swooping from the top. Stamets calls them Starship Enterprise mushrooms.
“It’s like a fantasy world down there,” Nowak said.
Some of these mushrooms will be dried and made into extracts or teas. Others are being tested to see how well they grow or how they taste.
To run his operation, which also includes Host Defense, a line of mushroom-based capsules sold as nutritional supplements, Stamets employs 41 people. He said business is up 45 percent over last year.
Things weren’t always this good, said Jim Gouin, a longtime employee. “A lot of us were eating rice and mushrooms out of the grow room for a long time,” he said.
When he can, Stamets and his wife, Dusty Yao, go out in the old-growth and collect. Sometimes they find chanterelles or matsutakes for eating.
Sometimes they find rare species that he’ll sample, put in a dish, and save for further research. Sometimes they find things that just plain fascinate.
Recently, Stamets posted a YouTube video of himself spotting a cordyceps sprouting from a buried truffle. He’d never found this before.
“This is extraordinarily cool,” he says in the video. “I mean” — he draws a breath, touching a hand to his chest — “this is mycological history in the making.”
He posted the video on a Sunday. By Monday morning, the clip had hundreds of views.
Stamets gives regular seminars on the finer points of cultivating, hunting and identifying mushrooms. He has written six books on the subject, including two, totaling some 400 pages, on the hallucinogenic varieties, known as psilocybes. That has made some mycologists hold him at arm’s length.
Stamets doesn’t talk much about psychedelic mushrooms anymore, and his website makes it clear he isn’t selling them. But he does admit his obsession with mushrooms began with a trip.
When he was 19 or 20 years old, he found himself alone, in a lightning storm, and high on psilocybes. He decided to climb a tree. “I don’t recommend it,” he said of the experience.
Back then, he had a “profound stuttering habit.” Years of therapy didn’t work. But in that tree, for what seemed like hours, he repeated to himself, “Stop stuttering now.”
In a day, he said, his stuttering disappeared.
For years, Stamets has been fascinated with the hivelike agarikon, a rare mushroom that lives on the tops of old-growth trees in the Pacific Northwest. They can withstand gale-force winds and more than 100 inches of rain a year, and they don’t rot. They can live up to 100 years.
They’re survivors. “Gee,” Stamets often has thought, “it might have some very good antiviral properties.”
Not just the agarikon, though. He sees medicine in all manner of fungus. Science just needs to match the right mushroom with the right disease.
It’s a potential gold mine.
“I don’t want to overexaggerate, but we have the beginnings of a myco-pharmacy here if we find something that’s not been discovered,” he said.
“Here,” is Stamets’ lab, complete with clean rooms, microscopes and two huge autoclaves. In one room, there are hundreds of petri dishes, a “library” of mushroom cultures.
“Every stack is a different strain, a different species. A different adventure in the old-growth forest,” he said. The agarikon samples are his most prized possessions.
He has supplied cultures to Bastyr University for a study of one strain’s immunological effects on breast-cancer patients. He has supplied cultures to the University of Mississippi for testing against smallpox and E. coli. He holds a patent with celebrity doctor Andrew Weil for a mushroom extract used in an anti-inflammatory skin cream.
He thinks mushrooms are the answer to pretty much everything.
When he had carpenter ants in his house, he figured he’d try mycelium on them. He got a patent for a pesticide that attracts the bugs to a natural poison.
He devised “mycofilters” — sacks filled with wood chips and mycelium — to filter contaminated water. Two years ago, Mason County decided to give them a try on contaminated drainage ditches, and officials there are pleased with the results.
The ideas keep coming.
“The best lesson I’ve learned in my life,” Stamets said, “is my critics are my best supporters. I love being told I can’t do something. When somebody says that, I say, ‘Thank you! You’ve just inspired me.’ “
Part of the skepticism, Stamets said, is because people are “mycophobic.” They’re afraid of mushrooms.
He arms himself with letters from scientists who either have gotten mushrooms from him for testing or who support his ideas. It’s a good pre-emptive strike against doubters.
But still … mushrooms for biodefense? C’mon.
Ask him about it, and he starts throwing around so many fancy terms that it’s impossible to follow.
And yet as an acronym-wielding Army spokeswoman explained: “He supplied some compounds under the NIAID/USAMRIID SARS/Poxvirus testing program.”
In English: Army researchers tested Stamets’ mushroom extracts as a defense against SARS and smallpox, which could be used as biological weapons.
Once again, Stamets’ story checks out.
Maureen O’Hagan: 206-464-2562 or email@example.com