The utilitarian uses of fungi are rather diverse and are found across cultures around the world. Scandinavian, African, Asian, Eastern European, and Native American cultures all have rich traditions regarding the use of fungi as food, ferments, medicine, clothing, tools, smudges, firestarter, art subjects, and spiritual teachers. These intersections are covered in various ways throughout this site but technically all fall under the general term of ethnomycology (the study of human interactions with fungi). It is really in many of the Western cultures that one finds that that majority of people are mushroom illiterate and often mycophobic (afraid of fungi).
Modern Utilitarian Uses of Fungi
In a modern context, several uses of fungi are of interest in regards to creating more sustainable and appropriate human lifestyles.
Mushroom Dyes – Dying with lichens (which are mostly comprised of fungi) dates back to ancient Egypt and is even quoted in the bible. This ancient tradition has been maintained in Scandinavian cultures and in the 20th century was further explored to great depths by Miriam Rice. Rice’s book, Mushrooms for Dyes, Paper, Pigments, Myco Stix, is arguably one of the best works on the topic and is the culmination of her life’s research on the subject before she died.
Nearly all the colors of the rainbow can be derived from mushrooms and lichens, including many shades of red that are difficult to extract from plant dyes. Experimentation will lead to new colors, to be sure, as materials, time, temperature, pH, and mordant (color setting agents) are all factors that play a role in the final color and quality acheived. A short list of mushrooms used for dyes can be found here.
Mushroom Paper – Miriam Rice also did much to explore the potential for using polypore fungi as a source for paper fiber. Again, depending on the fungus used, a wide range of colors and textures can be derived. This process should be considered an art project and not a sustainable replacement for plant derived paper. While tree harvesting for paper is not an ecologically sound process, we would rather see hemp paper replace tree paper than see our great fungal allies be used for paperback novels. Great walkthrus of the mushroom paper making process can be found here, here and here.
Mycotecture – This emerging field explores the uses of fungal mycelium as a building and insulating material. This is an exciting concept with only small scale prototypes having been experimented with. Artist Phil Ross has explored the use of this process in creative ways on his blog.
Biofuels & Methane Digesters -Energy production is being explored through the utilization of fungi. Fungal digestive enzymes (such as laccases) can be harvested and used in biocells to produce electrical currents. Bacteria and yeasts that ferment waste products (including feces) are also used to produce volatile compounds such as methane that can be captured, combusted and used a fuel source.
Mycopermaculture – The ways that fungi can be integrated into permaculture applications are numerous as fungi themselves seem to embody the principles and values of permaculture through their adaptive and integrative biology. In the garden setting, mycorrhizal fungi can be cultivated to enhance soil porosity, fertility, and productivity while macro fungi can be introduced as living mulch beds that companion with plants to enhance root stocks and increase yields. In a much larger picture, however, mushroom cultivation is itself a holistic, integrative, low-waste, high-yield practice that inherently embodies all of the principles of permaculture shown in this chart: