On a balmy April morning, a massive flush of psilocybe mushrooms popped up in a Portland, Oregon city park.
This particularly gregarious bloom of Psilocybe ovoideocystidiata, or “ovoids,” stretched over a large mulched area, attracting casual pickers who filled their tote bags to the brim.
One Portland resident, mycologist Jordan Jacobs, brought his camera to document the occasion instead.
“[Psilocybe fungi] actually thrive in areas where human civilization exists,” Jacobs said. “The classic example is landscaping and city mulch. When we chip up a bunch of dead trees and lay it down, this is just like a feeding frenzy for them.”
Oregon’s natural wealth in psilocybe mushrooms is the cultural and ideological underpinning to the state’s voter-approved — and the nation’s first — regulated psilocybin-assisted therapy system that is getting its footing this year. It’s an idea that’s quickly spreading.
A similar bill is awaiting signature in California, and Colorado already passed a law that, in addition to setting up a state-regulated psychedelic therapy pipeline, has also decriminalized limited cultivation, possession and consumption of psychedelic mushrooms.
But as governments explore how to integrate this substance into mental health care systems, scientists are still investigating so-called “magic” mushrooms’ origins and why their chemistry affects humans.
This isn’t Jacobs’ first rodeo. The owner of a fungi lab in downtown Portland, he’s also a forager, specimen collector and even one-time tour guide for National Geographic demonstrating the abundance of psychedelic mushrooms in neighborhood mulch.
The Pacific Northwest’s wet and temperate rainforest biome presents an ideal home for fungi, and several endemic psilocybe species can be found in a range of habitats — from city parks to coastal dune grasses.
“You can’t walk very far in the right season without encountering one of these,” Jacobs said. “Within the United States, the Pacific Northwest is a hotspot for mushrooms and psilocybin culture.”
Much is unknown though about how those endemic species arrived in Oregon’s welcoming soil. The ovoids growing in the park are most commonly found in the Ohio River valley, but have somehow taken root in the West Coast.
The other well known local species, Psilocybe cyanescens and Psilocybe azurescens, may have come from even further afield.
“The Australians are quite convinced that cyanescens and probably azurescens are subpopulations of an Australian species known as subaeruginosa,” said Jason Slot, who specializes in fungal evolution at Ohio State University.
Prevailing spore dispersal theories run from transoceanic wind currents to “specific personalities,” as Slot described them, transplanting mushrooms to the Pacific Northwest.
Yet the mystery of how psilocybe mushrooms migrate vast distances pales in comparison to how the psilocybin compound came to have the effect that it does in humans.
The pin in the grenade
With over 1,000 published scientific articles on psilocybin, it’s currently the most studied psychedelic, with data showing the potential of addressing a range of treatment-resistant mental health conditions.
When a human eats a psilocybe mushroom, the psilocybin compound is rapidly converted into psilocin that then floods the brain, interacting with serotonin receptors which mediate moods, emotions and other neurological processes.
The evolution of this compound and its host fungi, however, far predates the existence of humans or even our distant hominid ancestors.
“If you go back to the origin of Psilocybe, you’re talking more like somewhere between 30 and 40 million years,” said Slot, during a warm epoch when forests covered most of the Earth.
Jacobs thinks of a recent hypothesis by Dr. Dirk Hoffmeister, based at the Hans Knöll Institute in Jena, Germany, as one of the most compelling to date.
“He’s presented this theory that these molecules are produced as a defense on-demand mechanism,” Jacobs said, based on the tell-tale blue bruising on damaged psilocybe mushrooms.
“You can think of the whole psilocybin system as a grenade and psilocybin is like the pin in the grenade,” Jacobs said.
On the balmy Middle Eocene forest floor, the theory goes, insects trying to eat the archaic psilocybe mushroom would begin damaging the mushroom, triggering a cascading reaction.
“That pin gets pulled and enzymes that are now exposed to oxygen at this trauma site start to chew away the psilocybin and turn into psilocin.” Then other enzymes take that psilocin and polymerize it into a compound that is visually blue.
And this blue color is thought to be a herbivore deterrent — theoretically causing trouble in the gut system of bugs.
Defensive to medicinal compound
Fungal evolution experts like Slot stress that many hypotheses regarding psilocybin’s origins skew towards biases of respective scientific fields.
Slot’s own team at Ohio State University focused on how psilocybin neurologically tricks insects into losing their appetite as a defense mechanism.
“We have direct evidence from laboratory experiments that you can change the behavior of insects with psilocybin,” Slot said.
Although the chemists from Hoffmeister’s lab put more weight on the blue pigment hypothesis, Slot at least agrees that both theories “are probably functioning” — not to exclude other hypotheses that could emerge as interest in the psilocybin compound increases.
The current surge of psilocybin research points to a potential future when so-called “magic” mushrooms are fully demystified. For scientists like Jacobs, this simply means better harm reduction.
“I think a lot of the harm that comes from ingesting [psilocybe] mushrooms is that we just don’t talk about it in an educated setting,” Jacobs said. “Hopefully we can gain an understanding of where safety really does lie at the societal level.”
Subscribe to the Superabundant newsletter for more mind-expanding stories about food systems of the Pacific Northwest.
Related: Watch more “Superabundant” here