“Fantastic Fungi” director Louie Schwartzberg wants you to look closer at the world — and yourself.
They’re under every step you take. They’re in the air around you, inside of your body, and sometimes on your plate. In fact, they surround you every second of every day.
Some of them are dangerous, while others have healing properties and nutritional benefits that few other organisms can match.
They have been here since the beginning, and they will be here until the end. Some say we humans are only here because they are. In fact, they may already thrive on other planets (1, 2).
They are fungi, the most common species on Earth. And Louie Schwartzberg, director of the 2019 documentary “Fantastic Fungi,” wants to show you their magic.
“Beauty is nature’s tool for survival.” — Louie Schwartzberg
Most of us would agree that flowers, hummingbirds, and butterflies are beautiful — it doesn’t take much convincing for them to catch our eyes.
Fungi, though, are a different story.
“I think the beauty isn’t necessarily there. I think I bring it to the table,” Schwartzberg told Healthline. “Beauty is nature’s tool for survival because we protect what we love, so it manipulates our behavior. Beauty is this thing that orchestrates life.”
Schwartzberg knows a thing or two about bringing nature’s beauty to the forefront. He’s a renowned director, producer, speaker, and cinematographer credited as a pioneer of time-lapse cinematography.
“I use techniques, whether it’s time-lapse and slow-mo and micro and even CGI [computer-generated imagery], to unveil the mystery and to tell the story,” he said.
“I’m not just recording reality the way you and I see it. I’m going to do whatever it takes to really go deeper and really take people on a journey through time and scale.”
This is exactly what he does in “Fantastic Fungi” — zoom in, slow down, and let mushrooms and fungi tell their own story. In so doing, Schwartzberg reveals to us a world that’s often out of sight (sometimes literally beneath our feet), and how it has much to teach us.
‘Fantastic Fungi’ — first a film, now a summit
Just as Schwartzberg says that beauty orchestrates life, you could argue that fungi do the same.
Fungi are best known as nature’s decomposers. They grow, often in the form of molds and mushrooms, on or around dead organic matter — from rotting logs to old food. Fungi break down matter and recycle it back into the Earth (
Even your body is teeming with fungi. They comprise your gut microbiome, which helps you digest the food you eat. A healthy microbiome is crucial to your health and bodily functioning (
Fungi are everywhere because they’re critical to life as we know it. They cleanse the Earth of the old and usher in a new period of regeneration, and thus play key roles in our bodies and our environment.
In fact, mycologists — folks who study mushrooms — believe that fungi can provide sustainable solutions to many of the problems humankind faces, from cancer treatment and climate fixes to mental health and spiritual needs.
These specialists have brought mushrooms’ powerful benefits into the mainstream on such a wide scale that some have dubbed this powerful mushroom moment the “shroom boom.”
Mushrooms’ popularity and the documentary’s success inspired Schwartzberg to host the upcoming Fantastic Fungi Global Summit from October 15–17, 2021.
This free, virtual event will feature more than 40 fungi experts, authors, and thought leaders discussing the power of fungi. Topics include:
- psychedelics, consciousness, and psychedelic drug decriminalization
- physical and mental health
- environmentalism, climate, and mycology
- mushrooms’ culinary uses and nutrition
Featured speakers will offer a combination of prerecorded and live interviews totaling more than 50 hours of content. Attendees can purchase and download any conversations they’re unable to attend.
“The entry point is sort of around this idea of mushrooms, but it’s really not about mushrooms. It’s really about nature’s intelligence,” Schwartzberg said.
“There’s so much that we want to talk about but we couldn’t squeeze into an 82-minute movie, so this allows people to dig deeper.”
You can register for access to the Global Fungi Summit here.
Both the documentary and upcoming summit show that you stand to gain a lot of insight when you slow things down, look close, and pay attention.
The son of Holocaust survivors, Louie Schwartzberg tells the stories of those who have overcome adversity and moved forward with hope — whether they’re people (as in his film “America’s Heart and Soul”), pollinators (in “Wings of Life”), or, of course, fungi.
Time-lapse cinematography is Schwartzberg’s way of highlighting those stories in a way that grabs viewers’ attention.
He began shooting time-lapse when he graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles. Strapped for cash, he converted 35-mm cameras to shoot one frame at a time, in essence adapting his skills in still photography to motion-picture photography.
With that technique, it took months to shoot a roll of film. He shot flowers, clouds, shafts of light — anything nature had to offer that allowed him to see progression unfold over long periods of time.
Decades later, he hasn’t stopped shooting.
“I’ve been doing that nonstop, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for over 40 years, because I love the surprise I get from that experience,” he said.
The preservation of nature has always been a prominent theme of his work.
In his 2013 film “Wings of Life,” actress Meryl Streep voices a flower who speaks to pollinators — bees, bats, hummingbirds, and butterflies — to tell viewers the story of pollination.
Pollination is the process by which animals and insects transfer pollen from plant to plant, which allows plants to reproduce and supports biodiversity. Without pollinators, nearly 70% of the world’s crops would be threatened (
Through cinematography, Schwartzberg helps these stories — and the science behind them — reach all of us. He hopes that making science beautiful will help us not only learn but also care about our world.
Neither animal nor plant, fungi occupy a space of their own in the world we share. And although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, fungi and mushrooms are not exactly the same.
Of the 1.5 million species of fungi that scientists have identified, about 20,000 produce mushrooms, according to “Fantastic Fungi.” Mushrooms are the reproductive organs that release spores into the air. The spores act similarly to seeds to help the fungi reproduce.
Fungi are also connected underground via a complex network of roots known as the mycelium. Think of the mycelium as a passageway through which fungi share nutrients and information — a sort of internet embedded in nature.
Mycelia allow fungi to communicate with each other on a level that most plants don’t seem to. They can organize to combat competition, damage, predation, scarcity, and other challenges (9).
Other plants can use mycelia to share information and nutrients, too, according to “Fantastic Fungi.” Notably, plants have demonstrated kin recognition via mycelia, which involves a complex reading of chemical, visual, or other cues (
“We often think of kin recognition as an animal behavior,” plant communication expert and professor Suzanne Simard said in the documentary. “Humans, you know, we love our babies. We know it’s our baby, and we’re going to look after that baby.”
She added that research shows that mother trees, for example, recognize their offspring and communicate with them through mycelia.
“The mother tree and the baby seedlings are sending signals, talking to each other. When they’re connected together and carbon is moving between plants, the trees are supporting the weaker ones,” Simard said.
“If she knows that there are pests around and she’s under danger, she will increase her competitive environment towards her own babies, so that they regenerate further away.”
Some types of fungi may recognize their kin via mycelia, too. They appear to use this identification ability to determine whether to work together, protect each other, or compete against one another (
Fungi may help fight the climate crisis
Fungi’s ability to support the Earth may not end with their role as decomposers. Some mycologists believe that mycelial networks may help us combat climate change.
Plants consume carbon dioxide and release oxygen via a process known as photosynthesis. “Fantastic Fungi” notes that plants store an estimated 70% of the carbon they absorb in the soil beneath them. Significant amounts of carbon are also held in wood (
When plants — including trees — die, and as fungi break them down, that stored carbon is released into the atmosphere.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most prominent greenhouse gas, a type of compound responsible for damage to Earth’s climate. Much of the carbon that plants store — and eventually release — comes from human CO2 emissions.
However, research shows that some fungi, particularly ecto- and ericoid mycorrhizal (EEM) fungi, release dead plants’ stored carbon at a much slower rate (
Thus, they can help keep excess carbon in the soil, guarding our atmosphere from the full extent of carbon emissions.
Scientists hope to harness the carbon-mitigating effects of EEM fungi to help forests store more carbon rather than pump it into the atmosphere (
Mushrooms are nutritional powerhouses
The science is clear. Edible mushrooms — the flowering, reproductive bodies of fungi — belong on your plate.
Humans have eaten mushrooms for thousands of years. Some of the most common edible varieties include white (or “button”), portobello, shiitake, cremini, and oyster mushrooms (
You can also find less common, luxury mushrooms, such as morels, “chicken of the woods,” and — Louie Schwartzberg’s personal favorite — lion’s mane.
Mushrooms are generally low in calories, carbohydrates, and fat but high in essential nutrients.
A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of white (button) mushrooms provides just 22 calories, 3 grams of carbs, and less than 1 gram of fat. The same serving offers 3 grams of protein, which is more than most vegetables (
Because of their high protein content, mushrooms are considered a healthy, sustainable meat alternative (
They also offer the best nonanimal source of vitamin D.
Edible mushrooms that are exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light (via sunlight or a UV lamp) produce levels of vitamin D that can reach the total Daily Value (DV). They may be the only nonanimal, nonfortified food that provides the full DV in just one serving (
In fact, certain types boast almost 300% of the DV for vitamin D (20).
This vitamin supports bone, teeth, immune, mental, and muscle health. Although more research is needed, it may even reduce your chance of dying from cancer (
Mushrooms may provide other nutritional benefits, too.
Many species boast high levels of anti-inflammatory components, including polysaccharides, fatty acids, carotenoids, and vitamins. They also offer antioxidants like vitamin E, flavonoids, and polyphenols (
Test-tube and animal studies suggest benefits for brain health and cancer-fighting effects, but human studies are necessary (
Psilocybin (‘magic’) mushrooms may support mental health and wellness
Mushrooms’ health benefits extend beyond their nutritional profile. Many mycologists argue that they possess a unique ability to expand human consciousness.
In “Fantastic Fungi,” renowned mycologist Paul Stamets tells the story of his first time taking psilocybin mushrooms, commonly called magic mushrooms. He credits the mystical experience with curing his debilitating, lifelong stutter.
As a young adult, he acquired psilocybin mushrooms but didn’t have a guide — or “trip sitter” — to support him through the hallucinations. He didn’t even know how much he should take and ate the entire supply he had.
Stamets estimated in the documentary that he took 10 times the recommended dose.
His perception quickly distorted in ways both awesome and horrifying, showing him the world from perspectives he never could have imagined. He felt compelled to climb a nearby tree so he could see more of the sky.
Once he’d ascended, a severe thunderstorm rolled in. Stamets clung to the tree as the thunder and lightning raged all around him, terrified that he wouldn’t make it through.
Through his fear, he grounded himself by fixating on his stutter, telling himself, “Stop stuttering now.” He repeated the phrase until the storm passed and his high faded, then returned to the ground, drenched with rain. He went home and slept through the night.
The next morning, while out and about, Stamets saw a lady he’d had a crush on but never had the confidence to talk to due to his stutter.
“For the first time,” he said, “I looked her straight in the eye, and I said, ‘Good morning, how are you?'”
From that day on, Stamets never stuttered again.
Stamets is far from alone in using psilocybin. Several other participants in “Fantastic Fungi” detail their experiences taking it (in both clinical and recreational settings) — and its powerful effects.
What’s more, nearly 10% of American adults said they used psilocybin mushrooms in the 2015–2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The actual number is likely higher, as many people decline to self-report behaviors that are illegal or stigmatized (26).
Research suggests that psilocybin may help people feel in tune with nature and spirituality, ease symptoms of mental health conditions, and maintain resilience in emotionally taxing times (
There’s also evidence that psilocybin mushrooms relieve symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, suicidal ideation, anxiety disorders, alcohol use disorder, and tobacco use disorder (
A recent review of studies among people with cancer found that taking psilocybin helped participants reflect on their experiences and enlarge their sense of spirituality. This psilocybin-assisted psychotherapy may also help with death acceptance (
Furthermore, psilocybin mushrooms may help improve emotional resilience and strengthen your ability to cope with stress and isolation.
A recent survey in nearly 3,000 adults found that during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, psychedelic users reported less psychological and trauma-induced distress, plus higher levels of social support, than those who didn’t use psychedelic drugs (
Moreover, people who used psychedelics regularly reported better outcomes than those who used them less often (
Still, more rigorous studies are needed.
Notably, psilocybin mushrooms remain illegal at the federal level.
This policy is a holdover from the Nixon-era “War on Drugs” in the United States, which criminalized many drugs, from cannabis and psilocybin to cocaine and heroin. The crackdown caused incarceration rates to skyrocket, especially among People of Color (
However, as research into psychedelic drugs’ effects on human health gains ground, some states and municipalities have passed or considered legalization laws (
The decriminalization of psilocybin mushrooms will be a major topic of discussion at the Fantastic Fungi Global Summit.
The summit is Schwartzberg’s next step, but he hopes the event will inspire more energy toward mushrooms, the intelligence of nature, and our futures on Earth.
That’s not only crucial to understanding the underrated fungi and their place in our world but also to understanding ourselves.
“We’re a microcosm of what’s happening in nature,” Schwartzberg told Healthline.
“It’s all the same energy, it’s all the same physics, it’s all the same science. Whatever’s going on here is going on out there. I’ve always said, ‘Whatever we do to nature, we do to ourselves.’ We can continue to love it, protect it — but if we harm it, we hurt ourselves.”
Rose Thorne is an Associate Editor at Healthline Nutrition with a degree in journalism and women’s & gender studies. Based in Atlanta, Rose covers the intersections of gender, sustainability, health, and the U.S. South. Rose can be found browsing the local library, writing fiction, and occasionally tweeting.