While the leading names in the world of fungi tend to belong to men, traditionally and historically, women have always held intricately close connections to the natural world and extensive knowledge of medicinal herbs and plants- as witches, midwifes, herbalists, medicine women, and gardeners.
In today’s blog post, we honour and celebrate 2 fascinating women of mushrooms, and their cultural and creative contributions to the world of fungi.
(Potter, on the left. Dog, on the right)
Beatrix Potter, known mostly for her whimsical children’s adventure book, the Tale of Peter Rabbit, was also an avid mycologist.
For at least a decade, Potter devoted her creative talents to into hundreds of detailed, accurate images of mushrooms. Potter’s first known watercolours of mushrooms date back to 1887, when she was 20 years old. She went on to produce roughly 350 highly accurate pictures of fungi, mosses, and spores.
Her journal entries from the time suggest that she was not interested in becoming an official mycologist or earning money as a scientist, but rather that she was fascinated by the world of fungi and wanted to occupy her curious mind and creativity with the pursuit of knowledge. Also, that she was interested in the challenge fungi posed artistically.
“Now of all hopeless things to draw,’ Beatrix Potter wrote in 1892, ‘I should think the very worst is a fine fat fungus.’ “
She studied fungal organisms under a microscope to learn how they spread their spores, and wrote a paper on germinating fungal spores- “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae”, published in 1897. However, women were not widely accepted in academic circles at that time, and Potter withdrew the paper. It was never published and no copy exists to this day.
Her mushroom illustrations can be found in “Les Champignons”, a book of drawings by Beatrix Potter, and A Victorian Naturalist: Beatrix Potter's Drawings from the Armitt Collection” by Eileen Jay and Mary Noble.
Mycological illustration of the reproductive system of a fungus. Hygrocybe coccinea, made by Beatrix Potter and conserved at Armitt Museum and Library.
“Beatrix’s interest in drawing and painting mushrooms, or fungi, began as a passion for painting beautiful specimens wherever she found them. She never saw art and science as mutually exclusive activities, but recorded what she saw in nature primarily to evoke an aesthetic response. She was drawn to fungi first by their ephemeral fairy qualities and then by the variety of their shape and colour and the challenge they posed to watercolour techniques. Unlike insects or shells or even fossils, fungi also guaranteed an autumn foray into fields and forests, where she could go in her pony cart without being encumbered by family or heavy equipment.”- Linda Lear
“I am the woman who looks inside and examines.”
We now shift from the world of creative and academic pursuit to the realm of shamanism, healing, and the transformative power of psychoactive mushrooms.
Maria Sabina was a Mazatec curandera, who held sacred mushroom ceremonies (known as velada’s) with psilocybin mushrooms in Huautala, Mexico. ‘Magic’ mushrooms are revered by Indigenous peoples in Mexico as a medicine for healing and divination, for the sick to become well. Sabina was a Shamaness in her community and a respected medicine woman.
It is widely considered that Sabina is responsible for the spread of magic mushrooms to the mainstream in the Western world, as Sabina was the first contemporary North American shama to allow Europeans to participate in the velada. It was due to Sabina’s reputation that in 1955, Richard Wasson, an American banker, travelled to Mexico to experience first-hand the communion with the sacred through the consumption of the psychedelic sacrament.
Wasson shared his experience with the mainstream in America, and the magic mushroom culture was born in the West. In 1958, Wasson sent some Mexican mushroom specimens to Albert Hoffman (the bio-chemist who discovered LSD), who isolated the compounds of psilocybin and psilocin. In 1982, Wasson and Hoffman visited Sabina together in Mexico, and gave her psilocybin in pill form for the first time. Her response, “the did indeed contain the spirit of the mushroom”.
Sabina’s fame attracted the likes of Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Mick Jagger to Mexico to work with her. Huautla was transformed into the psychedelic tourism hub of Mexico- what was once sacred was now being openly sold on the street.
The community was so upset by this rapid transformation, and Sabina’s house was burned down, she was even briefly jailed.
At the end of her life, she regretted sharing the medicine with Wasson and other Westerners. “From the moment the foreigners arrived, the saint children (mushrooms) lost their purity. They lost their force; the foreigners spoiled them.”
Sharing our deep respect and gratitude to Sabina and the ripples of healing her offering continues to create around the world. Psilocybin is at the forefront of clinical studies today combating depression, anxiety, and addiction.
Without a doubt, the medicine chose Sabina to act as a vehicle of knowledge, helping the mushrooms spread their impact in the hearts and souls of people everywhere.
Pollan, M. (2019). How to change your mind the new science of psychedelics. Penguin Books