Mushrooms’ names can hold the key to life or death — yours

Golden oyster mushrooms being weighed on a small scale
Attabey Rodríguez Benítez weighs her new crop of golden oyster mushrooms (Pleurotus citrinopileatus). She says that after a round of deep frying, they have the consistency of fried squid. (Attabey Rodríguez Benítez)

By Marisa Sloan
Medill Reports

When Dr. Attabey Rodríguez Benítez successfully defended her chemical biology dissertation at the University of Michigan, her colleagues surprised her with an unusual gift: a golden oyster mushroom growing kit.

She plopped the big bag of compressed sawdust between her desk and a humidifier, spritzed it with water and nearly forgot about it… until enormous, yellow scallops erupted less than a week later. “The only other [fungus] I have grown is cheese mold, unintentionally!” Benítez said. Now, she’s one of a growing number of people who dedicate their free time to navigating the curious world of mushrooms — and their complicated names.

Mycology is the branch of biology dealing with fungi, including their relationships to one another and use to humans. The process of naming fungi is pretty complicated nowadays, but a small group of experts toil in relative obscurity to ensure that when mycologists around the world talk to one another about a mushroom, they’re speaking the same language.

It wasn’t always that way. Prior to the development of the current naming system in the mid-18th century — a hierarchy consisting of kingdom, class, order, genus and species of which children are taught numerous mnemonics — there were just 5,000 known mushroom species. Many mycologists simply memorized them all.

Now that there are more than two times that number, and likely around 2 to 4 million species that remain undiscovered, it has become that much more difficult to regulate the rapidly accumulating names… and reconcile nomenclature errors from the past few hundred years.

Marisa Sloan is a health, environment and science reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @sloan_marisa.