Ethnomycology, put simply, is the study of how humans have historically—and are currently being—impacted by fungi.

This, as you might imagine, is a huge field of study, spanning the studies of history, biology, sociology, and, of course, mycology. Much of the work in ethnomycology concerns psychoactive fungi, but that’s far from the entirety of this field; mushrooms are of course used as medicines, food sources, and even as useful tools (such as dried mushrooms being used as fire starting tinder in several cultures both historical and present). Learn about …

  • The definition of ethnomycology and why it’s such an important subfield of ethnobiology (and yes, we describe what ethnobiology is too!)
  • How ethnomycology can help enhance learning in other related fields, such as fungal spore microscopy and amateur mycology researcher
  • Why the study of mushroom spores has become a popular pastime for amateur scientists in recent years—particularly the spores of psilocybin mushrooms
  • How the mushroom reproductive cycle plays a part in ethnomycological studies
  • The key things to understand about the growth of mushrooms in the context of ethnomycology
mushroom reproduction and spore germination

What is Ethnomycology? Understanding This Important Subfield of Ethnobiology

The term ethno- is called a “combining form” which refers to people, culture, nation, class, tribe, or race. It derives from the Greek word ethnos. It is generally used in combination with another word forming element, such as is the case with words like ethnography (the study of cultural phenomena), ethnolect (a language specific to a certain group of people), or even ethnomusicologist (one who studies the music from different cultures).

Thus, when we understand that mycology is the term referring to the study of fungi, we understand that ethnomycology is the study of fungi with regard to how it has impacted different peoples and cultures.

The term ethnomycology should not be confused with the term entheogen, which refers to psychedelic substances (particularly those which are naturally occurring and have a historically recognized use as spiritual substances, such as psilocybin mushrooms). The term entheogen is derived from the Greek entheos, which—literally translated—means “the god within”.

The study of entheogens is also very interesting, of course, but doesn’t specifically refer to mushrooms and is a much more specific field of study. Having said that, there may be some degree of crossover in the study of entheogens and ethnomycology and the two fields are not mutually exclusive.

Nevertheless, as you might suspect, ethnomycology is a massive area of study, since nearly all cultures have had some form of interaction with fungi, both in the present day and long, long into the past.

How Ethnomycological Studies Enhance Learning for Amateur Microscopists and Mycologists

Mushroom spores microscopy is a growing hobby among amateur microscopists and mycologists for a variety of reasons. Chief among those reasons is perhaps because mushroom spores are widely available—the spores of psilocybin-containing mushrooms are even legal throughout most of the United States—and present an excellent way to independently research the formative stages of fungi.

We’ll discuss the reasons for the growing popularity of the study of fungi spores more in a later section; for now, let’s examine why developing an understanding of ethnomycology can enhance those studies greatly.

Since ethnomycology is the study of how fungi has impacted people throughout history, knowing things about it can provide additional context for studying fungal spores under a microscope, or general mycology research.

Psilocybin Mushroom Ceremony Practices in Mexico

Take for example an amateur microscopist interested in the use of psilocybin containing fungi for spiritual rituals in Mexico, as is known to have been practiced by many of the cultures there throughout history—see our blog post about psilocybin mushroom ceremonies and the Florentine Codex, which detailed many of these sacred mushroom ceremonies, both historical and modern. With a deeper understanding of the cultures which used and use these fungi, one could experience greater appreciation when studying the spores of Mexican psychedelic mushrooms.

Or perhaps one is looking into the psychedelic culture of the United States and reading the works of Terence McKenna and other influential speakers in that area; studying spores of fungi originally discovered by these researchers would be far more interesting when one has a historical background on how and when they appeared in the psychedelic subculture.

Ethnomycology isn’t just about psychedelic spores, however. Imagine a chef who works with exotic culinary spores, for example—studying the historical use of these fungi would undoubtedly enrich the experience of not only preparing foods with them, but perhaps the quality of the food itself, since the chef would have a greater understanding of the mushroom’s historical use in food preparation.

What is the Scientific Study of Spores, and Why Has it Become Such a Popular Pastime for Amateur Scientists?

scientific study of spores

The study of fungi spores is a rapidly growing pastime in the United States and elsewhere throughout the western world. Thanks to the wide availability of not only spores themselves and a large choice from the mushroom strains list to choose from, but also surprisingly fantastic “entry level” priced microscopy equipment, this has become an affordable, fun, and undeniably educational hobby.

The study of spores is attractive to amateur microscopists because it greatly expands the available specimens to study. When an amateur microscopist starts out in the hobby, they’re generally pretty excited to start studying things they can easily obtain “around the house,” so to speak—there’s a lot of joy and excitement for students to be had in studying, say, a leaf found in the back yard or the wing of an insect.

However, over time, microscopists generally begin to yearn for something more complex and rich to study, and mushroom spores fit that bill. Spores are alive and, from a biological standpoint, literally bursting with potential—while they will remain dormant until provided with proper amounts of nutrition and an adequate environment for growth (see the following section), it’s still a thrill to study something viable.

Fungal Taxonomy

Furthermore, mushroom spores are an excellent opportunity to study fungal taxonomy. Taxonomy is the classification of living things, and fungi offers an abundance of opportunities in this regard. Psilocybin mushrooms, such as Psilocybe cubensis, are not only fascinating to study from an entheogenic or ethnomycological standpoint, but also from a taxonomical standpoint since this particular species is parent to countless dozens and hundreds of known strains.

study of fungi spores

Beginner taxonomists in the field of fungal microscopy quickly learn that there’s a big distinction between a species and a strain. A species is considered to be the most granular of the taxonomic ranks, while a strain is a genetic variant of a species, otherwise known as a subtype. The most popular of the psilocybin-containing fungi is Psilocybe cubensis, which has many different strains.

These strains can often be remarkably different from one another, both in terms of how they appear in the spore state as well as what the fungi would look like at maturity in the wild. For a microscopist, this presents a very unique opportunity to be able to study the same species but to see how it develops differently under different settings and environments. For example, a fungi discovered in the Himalaya mountains might still be considered a member of the Psilocybe cubensis species, but would be very different than a strain discovered in, say, the marshes of Florida in the United States.

All of these taxonomical challenges don’t even account for the additional complexity layered in when one begins to study hybridizations, or cross strains. These are two different fungal strains which have been cross bred with one another, usually in a laboratory setting. These hybrids can produce some very unique fungi indeed, and are an absolute pleasure to study in the spore state under the microscope.

Mushroom Reproduction and Spore Germination in Ethnomycological Studies

mushroom with brown coloration

How mushrooms reproduce is an important area of study for amateur microscopists and mycologists. Developing an understanding of the biological background of the growing mushroom stages is important and can enrich one’s grasp on ethnomycology as a whole—after all, the mushrooms that have so impacted human society have to grow somewhere, be harvested, and then used!

The growing mushroom stages are not terribly complex and have been the subject of much discussion here on the blog, but we’ll quickly review them here once again for the sake of completeness.

The Life Cycle of a Mushroom

Mushroom spores must have a substrate to begin to grow. What is mushroom growing substrate? In the wild, it can be anything—typically dirt, rotting foliage, wood, leaves, dead insects, and so on are the most common growing mushroom spawn. In a laboratory setting, grain might be used or other substrates which have proven to be more efficacious than natural offal; regardless, spores need access to nutrition and moisture to begin the next stage of the mushroom reproduction cycle.

With enough nutrition, spores will begin to develop hyphae, which are threadlike tendrils that come off the spores. Hyphae eventually mature into mycelium, which is the threadlike growth that most people associate with fungi; it can look a bit like cobwebs growing on and in the ground or another substrate. Once mycelium grows sufficiently, it will produce pins—tiny mushrooms.

These pins then develop into mature fruiting bodies, which we call mushrooms. From beneath the cap of the mushroom, spores are released through the gills. The spores are, ideally, carried by the wind and then deposited elsewhere where the mushroom reproduction cycle can begin anew.

Any mushroom or fungi studied in ethnomycology begins its life this way, since mushrooms reproduce by spores.

What Are The Key Things to Understand About the Growing Mushroom Stages?

  • The spore stage
  • The mycelium stage
  • The fruiting body (mushroom) stage

This, of course, is a gross oversimplification of the process, but each item on the list above are indeed cornerstones of how mushrooms reproduce.