Don’t underestimate magic mushrooms: These extraordinarily hallucinogenic fungi pop up almost everywhere around the world, spreading through the soil through a mysterious mycelium network that connects the entire fungal kingdom.
What happens above ground is a different story. Shroom spores and spawn get around thanks to natural processes like the wind, animals, and these days, guerilla gardeners who are discreetly trying to seed as many harvests as possible.
They’re going out across Colorado, Oregon, California, Washington and elsewhere to dump kilos of wood chips seeded with shroom spores and shoot millions of spores from water guns. It’s industrial level psychedelic philanthropy.
“The last few years, I've seen a significant decline in the population of magic mushrooms in our area,” says Jeff Patterson, a glassblower from Bremerton, Washington. “And so the only way to combat it is to plant more. They have medicinal powers for addiction and depression. I ate as many as I could one night and woke up and haven’t smoked a cigarette since.”
This belief in the mushroom is reflected in his work. “Here’s an experiment in high tech psilocybe patch-making technology,” he says in an Instagram video posted to his feed, which has more than 50,000 followers, as he fills a top-of-the-range squirt gun with spore water. “I’m like, hello, just gonna walk around and shoot some spores all over the place... Ah, I hope this works – I’m having too much fun.”
There is, of course, a high chance that the vast majority of spores spread in this cowboy fashion will not spawn shrooms. But Patterson – who has been dubbed the “Johnny Appleseed” of magic mushrooms, after the pioneering nurseryman who planted thousands of apple trees – is gambling on depositing millions, if not billions, of spores in an afternoon.
He, like other guerrilla mycologists, is playing a percentage game. Even if only one percent take root, that’s a whole lot of shrooms. “I grew up picking, and it was freaking amazing,” he reflects. “And I would love for the future generations to be able to experience that as well.”
Patterson isn’t shy about his activities, even though Washington lawmakers are still deliberating over a bill to legalise psilocybin. “A few of us have been stopped by police or other people who are curious about why we are digging in the wood chips,” he says. “Whenever we've been approached, we just say things about mushrooms that most people get bored with and they leave you alone. Cops often say you may be trespassing, you should go now.”
As psychedelics become increasingly popular, Patterson believes spore spreading will counter any reckless picking by newbies in the wild. He’s not the only one – a growing legion of amateur mycologists are taking matters into their own hands to ensure that there is no serious depletion of shroom stock, as is already the case with the cactus peyote.
“I feel a kinship with the fungus itself: I'm acting under the direction of the fungus,” says Steve, a retired chemist and a pioneer of the spore spreading movement. (He did not wish to use his real name.) He and his comrades are stepping up their activities in fear of a big business carve-up of the magic mushroom market.
There are also fears of scarcity in parts of the US. Previously abundant zones have been found totally plundered — including through the use of rakes and spades — by amateur folks not harvesting sustainably. “We don't like going out and finding trampled habitats,” Steve says, but rather than sit with their anger, him and his crew “do something about it”.
The reason why people are out “spreading this mycelium around is because we all feel the corporate thing coming and we don't like it,” he adds. Steve claims to have single-handedly created hundreds of magic mushroom patches in the US: “This is a way that I can make the experience more available. But there are a lot of people doing bigger and more elaborate things.”
A recent short documentary film, Azurescens: Through the Blue Lens, spoke to a key organiser of one major community of guerrilla spore spreaders in the Pacific northwest. “We get together with as much spawn as we can and we take it to places we think the spawn will thrive,” he says, a mask covering his face due to fears of arrest.
They plant the spores, mark the location and come back within a year or two to check on it. At one undisclosed place, he claims his group recently “inoculated the area with a little over 50 gallons of spawns”.
Psilocybin is a Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act, but pro-shroom reforms in Oregon and Colorado have galvanised certain activists. Many are now operating with more confidence than ever.
It’s taken a while for the countercultural movement to arrive at this moment. Since the dawning realization that magic mushrooms grow abundantly across the US from the mid-1950s, mushroom pickers have been spore spreading through low-tech methods.
But the current era began in 2008 when amateur mycologist Peter McCoy, through a campaigning group known as the Spore Liberation Front, published Radical Mycology, a guidebook with “a call to sporulate” all kinds of mushrooms, from tasty chanterelles to their trippier cousins. Thousands got their hands on the zine, according to the author.
McCoy tells VICE he is unaware of anyone ever being arrested for guerilla magic mushroom spreading, but “even today, some people are still reluctant to admit things”.
But not him: “They're very aggressive species, very easy to grow outdoors,” he says of azurescens and cyanescens, two particularly potent hallucinogenic strains native to his hometown state of Oregon. (Note to any would-be gardeners: spreading non-native species is a bad idea.) “I knew people who did that around my college town Olympia, Washington, and they grew abundantly. One afternoon in the fall, I noticed that one friend’s whole backyard was covered with dozens of pounds of psilocybe cyanescens.”
McCoy says that the popularity of his zine “just snowballed” after publication. A conference dubbed the Radical Mycology Convergence followed in 2011, before a book with more in-depth explanations sold 10,000 copies, he says. The convention had its sixth edition in Oregon in October 2022.
“We’re entering a whole new era of human-fungal relationships,” McCoy explains. “What we know today about fungal ecology – how they interact with the environment, married to our ability to cultivate them with ease – has never been available to humans in history. It was a total mystery how to grow mushrooms 100 years ago, for the most part. It's one of the last frontiers of the natural world.”
It’s not just the magic variety of mushrooms that benefit humans. Many mycology enthusiasts are, like McCoy, spreading all sorts. “Get everybody eating gourmet mushrooms,” says Nick Phillips, after leading a recent Psychedelic Society guerrilla event in London where the spawns of non-psychoactive mushrooms were distributed in a park. “They strengthen people’s immune systems.”
He believes that increased wild production of sober varieties such as shiitake and lion's mane would lead to reduced prices in stores and that increased public consumption would significantly improve public health. Scientists have found that eating a whole host of mushroom varieties may provide protection against cancer, Alzheimer’s and heart disease due to their high levels of antioxidants. “This should be a thing of national interest,” Phillips says.
But spore spreading skills are undeniably transferable. Some left the workshop professing that they may begin using the knowledge to pollinate green spaces with the magic variety. “My mission is to enable other people to get easy access to magic mushrooms,” one attendee says. “It's really important that people are able to get connected, back in touch with nature, and then start to make change.”
Back in Washington, Patterson is gearing up for another outing with spores from one of his favourite strains. “It’s such a virulent species, it’ll eat every wood chip you can imagine,” he says. “It will grow from a single hand of spawn to a 10-foot patch in six months. Communities are dedicated to making sure mushrooms are here for future generations.”