Story by Jillian Barvir, photos by Sebastien Rioux

If you had asked me about mushrooms during my adolescent years, I would have likely raved about how well they pair with ranch dip on a veggie platter or vaguely mentioned their role as decomposers (if you caught me after a science class). Little did I know that my understanding of mushrooms and their significance would evolve over time, revealing the vast potential they hold in sustaining life on Earth.

My journey into the world of mushrooms began while farming on a remote off-grid island in the Haida Gwaii archipelago. A friend, who made a living foraging chanterelles, offered to take me on a foraging adventure. I jumped at the opportunity, as most foragers aren’t in the habit of disclosing where they forage. We spent an entire day in the woods, following the trails of chanterelles across the mossy forest floor. It was remarkable how my friend could sniff out patches of mushrooms in the most unsuspecting places. I harvested maybe one eighth of the mushrooms he found, nevertheless, the harvest I took home felt like such abundance. My host showed me how to fry the chanterelles in butter so that they are soft on the inside and crispy on the outside. This experience introduced me to the joy of harvesting wild mushrooms and savoring their delectable flavours.

Years later, I met my fiancé Phil through the Young Agrarians Apprenticeship Program. I was farming on an organic vegetable farm and he was apprenticing at Fungi Akuafo, a mushroom farm near Sundre. Whenever I visited him at the mushroom farm, I assisted in growing culinary mushrooms like blue oyster and lion’s mane to sell at the local farmer’s market. I quickly realized that growing mushrooms was unlike traditional farming – it involved understanding the mycelium, the mushroom’s vegetative body, and its role as the root system of a plant. This network unlocks nutrients, creates resilience, and transforms environments, revealing mushrooms as true architects of ecosystems.

I went on to work for Fungi Akuafo for a year, after which Phil and I attempted to start our own culinary mushroom business. I learned even more about fungi during this time, particularly their role in soil health and nutrient cycling. Mycorrhizal fungi play a pivotal role in sustainable agriculture by reducing the need for chemicals and promoting nutrient uptake in crops. They also prove vital in ecosystem restoration efforts, kickstarting recovery processes in degraded habitats. Moreover, I discovered the incredible ability of fungi in mycoremediation, breaking down and absorbing toxic substances, and sequestering carbon to combat climate change. I also met a woman during this time who was 3D printing with mycelium, building homes and creating art! Fungi are “a brilliant reply to some of life’s most basic challenges” as biologist Merlin Sheldrake details in his fascinating and informative book, Entangled Life.

More recently, I am learning about the medicinal properties of mushrooms through my coursework at the Wild Rose College of Herbal Medicine, where I am studying to become a Clinical Herbalist. I have been experimenting with drinking chaga tea to support my immune system during cold and flu season, mixing powdered reishi into my morning cup of coffee to help calm my mind, supplementing with lion’s mane to support nerve regeneration after a concussion, and supporting my gut and liver health with turkey tail. Mushrooms have proven to be allies on my healing journey and I would recommend their medicine to anyone.

Although Phil’s and my dream of growing culinary mushrooms is on hold for now, the fungal kingdom remains a realm of endless discovery. Their culinary delights, ecological significance, and healing properties left me hopeful for humanity’s future, knowing we have fungi as our allies in healing ourselves and the Earth. As I continue to delve into the mysteries of the fungal kingdom, I invite others to explore and appreciate the profound contributions of fungi to our well-being and the planet’s health.

Recommended mycological reading
  1. Organic Mushroom Farming and Mycoremediation: Simple to Advanced and Experimental Techniques for Indoor and Outdoor Cultivation by Trade Cotter
  2. Fungipedia by Lawrence Millman
  3. Giant Polypores & Stoned Reindeer by Lawrence Millman
  4. Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World by Paul Stamets
  5. Mycophilia by Eugenia Bone
  6. Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake