Medicinal plants

Fungi in culture: use, effect and meaning for humans

Mushrooms and people: mythology and mycology
Mushrooms are not animals and also not plants, but very strange creatures. Many mushrooms contain poisons that can kill people, others change the senses. In many cultures, they were therefore seen as carriers of mysterious powers; they were ingredients for magic, and shamans used them to enter the "other reality".

Historical assumptions about mushrooms

The ancient Greek physician Dioscurides separated edible from poisonous mushrooms. He suspected that the edibility depended on the location. For example, mushrooms are poisonous, which grow on trees with poisonous fruit or close to snake caves, on rusty iron or rotting clothes. However, excessive consumption of edible mushrooms could also cause stomach upset.

For a long time the belief persisted that mushrooms that eat animals can also be eaten by humans. Our ancestors wrongly assumed that humans could eat everything that other animals eat.

Miasms were supposed to explain the emergence of fungi in the early modern age, i.e. the evaporation of the earth as well as putrefaction in the ground. Many scientists believed in spontaneous formation because the spores were invisible before the microscope was invented.

Witch rings

Their differentness has always brought mushrooms into the world of spirits and demons, devils and witches. Their strange shapes brought people in contact with elves and gnomes, dwarfs and fairies.

So-called witch rings refer to groups of mushroom fruiting bodies that grow in circles. The sponge tissue uses up the nutrients and has to spread in rings to get more nutrients while the old tissue dies. In this way, symmetrically shaped rings can be created that no longer have underground runners inside.

In witch trials in the early modern period, the witch-hunters saw the traces of a witch dance during the nocturnal witch's Sabbath. Snakes crawling in circles or witches riding on foals in circles were also considered to be the originators. Or smoke from the underworld would come to earth and form a ring. Or the devil should make butter in a barrel here.

Another term for the “witch rings” was “Elfenhof” because people believed that the court of the Elven king gathered for these festivities at night and used the mushrooms as seats.

In Germany it was rumored that these rings would grow on the Walpurgis night when the witches gathered to dance, in Holland the devil created them - therefore the milk of a cow that was grazing here was to spoil. In France, toads with big eyes lived within these witch rings. The association between toads and mushrooms is probably because they both love moisture and dim light and both have poisons.

Magic power should arise in a witch ring. This could either bring luck or bad luck. For example, young girls were not allowed to wet dew from inside a ring of witches, since the fairies and elves living there were jealous of their beauty, and used the dew to deface human women.

Wrinkled skin and earth penis

The Silesians believed that the devil grabbed an old woman and tore it to pieces. The morels, whose structure resembles a “wrinkled skin”, have grown from these parts of the body. In some parts of Germany, on the other hand, people thought that the morels grew at the deer rutting areas: their shape was probably reminiscent of an erect penis, and their smell (stinkhorn) of a man's unwashed genitals. As a supposed sexual enhancer, it was an ingredient in love potions.

The botanical name also alluded to the resemblance to a penis. Carl von Linné, the first systematic biologist, introduced the Latin name with generic and species names, which is still common today. He called the stinkhorn "Phallus impudicus".

The truffles' underground fruiting bodies were also thought to promote potency. Our ancestors associated their shape with the male testicles. However, truffles actually form androsterones, i.e. sex attractants. So you really promote the sex drive.

Growth through the hand of a ghost

The people of Styria believed that ghosts would trigger mushroom growth, the "sponge gnomes". These spirits were well-disposed to people who were not baptized, and therefore they found a particularly large number of mushrooms.

If you want to find a lot of mushrooms regularly, you should throw the first mushroom found behind to calm the forest spirits. Whoever thought only of themselves would not give this gift again.

The sponge watch

A blade of grass, which was slightly longer than a nail on the left thumb, was placed on the fingernail with saliva, and then it should point in the direction of rich fungus deposits. If you then wiped your eyes with the first mushroom found, you should be able to discover the mushrooms better.

Gods and saints

The best way to hunt for mushrooms was after a thunder, and the best day for the mushrooms was Thursday. The Germanic god Donar (Thor), from whom Thursday is derived as well as thunder, was the god of the peasants - in contrast to Odin, the god of nobility. Mushrooms should grow when he threw his hammer through the air.

In Christian times, St. Vitus and St. Peter were considered mushroom cartridges. In the night of June 15, Veit was supposed to ride the world on a blind mold and sow "mushroom seeds".

The following story was circulating about Peter: “One day he came to a village with Jesus and a peasant woman gave them both bread. Peter bit into it, Jesus asked him something, and Peter replied with his mouth full, spitting out the pieces of bread. So that these still had a use, Jesus transformed them into the first mushrooms, more precisely into porcini mushrooms. But Peter had sworn at some pieces of bread when he spat them out. This is where the toadstools came from. "

On the day of Saint Peter, June 29, the Styrians moved to Graz and asked Peter for mushroom seeds. If it rained a lot that day, then "it rained mushrooms".

Occasionally, however, mushroom folk came close to the devil and hell for very secular reasons. The Hallimasch served in Austria as a laxative, and its name is said to come from "hell in the ass". Of course, this is not proven.


Mycology is derived from ancient Greek mycos like mushroom and refers to the science of mushrooms, i.e. with tubular mushrooms, pillar mushrooms, yoke mushrooms, potty mushrooms and arbuscular mycorrhizal mushrooms.

The term has existed since the 18th century. The founder of modern mushroom research was the Hungarian David Gruby, who discovered the yeast Candida albicans, the skin fungus Trichophyton schoenleinii and the tubular fungus Ctenomyces metagraphytes.

Pliz research is at a similar point to that of zoology at the end of the 18th century. Since only a fraction of all mushroom types have been examined, the first step is to systematize the mushroom types. In addition to molecular biology, the analysis of DNA sequences also serves this purpose.

Mushrooms as plant pests

Mushroom researchers are particularly concerned with fungi that cause diseases in plants, as this is of enormous importance for agriculture, the timber industry and the food industry.

Garbage disposal

Another focus of research is the role of fungi as waste eliminators. In the natural cycle, mushrooms play a central role in decomposing wood. In large parts of the land, they ensure that people and animals can use them at all.


In medicine, mushroom research is part of microbiology and examines fungal toxins and fungal infections in humans. These include diseases such as athlete's foot and nail fungus, candidiasis or allergies to mold. However, fungi also produce antibiotics against bacterial infections in humans and animals.

The industrial production of Penicillium mushrooms, for example, provides such antibiotics, the Aspergillus mushrooms provide vitamin C and the yeast B vitamins. Some mushrooms also break down poisons.

Fields of work

Mushroom scientists are important in the following areas:

1) recycling. Mushrooms help to “transform” industrial materials and to produce new products from the material. Or they convert wood waste into compost.

2) Mushroom researchers work in biotechnology, be it to “vaccinate” plants with fungi and thus ensure better growth, or to investigate how fungi can be used in medicine and technology.

3) Mushrooms play a large part in biological crop protection, since many of them drive away pathogens and pests in plants, such as killing them.

4) Mushroom researchers often work as official advisors. Unlike laypeople who collect mushrooms, they can also differentiate between double species and prevent people from contracting fungal poisoning that can be fatal.

5) The mushroom experts are increasingly active in breeding. In addition to the established cultivation of mushrooms or shiitake mushrooms, they try to grow other types of mushrooms industrially.

6) A new field is wood refinement using mushrooms.

The history of mushroom research

Our ancestors used mushrooms for healing as food and as intoxicants as early as the Stone Age. Theophrastus of Eresos (371-288 BC) was the first to start classifying them scientifically. He saw them as primitive plants.

Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) divided the mushrooms into fungus, the hat mushroom, agaricum, the larch mushroom, suillus, the boletus, tuber, the truffle and boletus, the emperor. At the same time, the Greek Pedanios differentiated mushrooms according to their location into above-ground hat mushrooms, underground truffles and porlings on the trees.

Doctors of the early Middle Ages associated mushrooms with the also spongy mosses and called them "mussiriones" from the Latin word "muscus" for moss. The French “mocheron”, the Anglo-Saxon “muscheron” and today's English “mushroom” were derived from this.

Albertus Magnus (1193-1280) strongly advised against eating mushrooms, as these would result from rotting. He saw them as a kind of crippled plant that lacked leaves and twigs.

The early modern era

Pietro Andrea Mattioli (1501-1577) deviated from the idea that mushrooms arise spontaneously or even “on their own”, but correctly suspected that the spore dust from the mushrooms contained something like seeds.

Joseph Pitton de Tournefort (1656-1708) correctly described fungi as a trigger for diseases in plants. Carl von Linné (1707-1778) finally placed her in a class with ferns, mosses and algae.

Mushroom research today

The technical possibilities of mushroom research in the transition to the 21st century with microbiology, genetics and molecular biology showed that we know very little about mushrooms. The arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi point to the future and enable well-being and growth for 90% of all plant species.

They can play a central role in future nature conservation and agricultural models, and attempts are already being made to “upgrade” crops with such fungi to enable agriculture in desert regions of the Sahel. (Dr. Utz Anhalt)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.

Dr. phil. Utz Anhalt, Barbara Schindewolf-Lensch


  • Dörfelt, Heinrich (ed.): Lexicon of Mycology, Gustav Fischer Verlag, 1988
  • Müller, Emil; Loeffler, Wolfgang: Mycology. Floor plan for natural scientists and doctors, Thieme, 1992
  • Schön, Georg: Mushrooms: living things between plants and animals, C.H.Beck, 2005
  • Schwantes, Hans O .: Biology of Mushrooms, 1996

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