New York Fungus Festival: the Wild and Wonderful World of Mushrooms

On a temperate fall afternoon, Vito Vacirca sported a black Borsalino fedora lined with dried turkey-tail mushrooms and violet-tinted sunglasses, a second pair of shades dangling from the neck of his “Fungus Among Us” sweatshirt. He surveyed the display table before him, where there were dozens of recently scavenged mushrooms, including beach-ball-size puffballs the shade of exhumed skulls and foamlike, egg yellow chicken of the woods. He smiled. A stranger then took a photo of him.

“I should have brought my mushroom glasses,” Mr. Vacirca, 75, said wryly.

Last weekend, he was among about 2,000 mycophiles exploring the eclectic joys of mushrooms at the New York Fungus Festival on Randall’s Island in Manhattan. There were many tented stations, where vendors sold mushroom wares and specialists — artists, scientists, urban farmers — delivered mycology-themed demonstrations.

At the exhibits, attendees in sweaters and hiking boots lingered, sometimes piling into each other. They ran their fingers over yarn stained with fungal dyes, gasped at glowing mushrooms and listened to presentations about the lichen of Central Park. Teenagers played Super Mario Kart on a console made of mycelium grown in a plastic mold as indie rock music blasted from speakers made with the same material.

Fungal brooches, earrings and sweatshirts abounded. Envious onlookers in more conventional garb could scurry to the costume corner, where they could glue felt polka dots on their own custom mushroom berets.

The Fungus Festival was founded in 2022 by Sneha Ganguly, a 33-year-old artist, and is hosted with the New York Mycological Society. It started as a more scrappy, D.I.Y. operation, and organizers had to cap registration at 1,300 attendees.

This year, thanks to new community partners like NYC Parks GreenThumb, which helped supply tents and tables, anyone could stroll in. (“Our mycelium network is slowly growing and strengthening,” Ms. Ganguly said.) The event is part of a recent explosion of public interest in fungi, a surge that’s known as the “shroom boom.”

Psilocybin, the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms, has become a hot topic in mainstream psychiatry (though some have urged caution during their clinical use); more people are openly talking about microdosing and consuming psychedelics (though they remain illegal in most of the United States); and fashion, music, food and interior design have all looked to fungi for inspiration.

Ms. Ganguly said that the fungus community attracts people from all walks of life. “Because mushrooms are a little bit fringe and alternative, it really values all kinds of voices,” she said.

Yet, mycological institutions still struggle with racial and cultural diversity. With Ms. Ganguly as its first community outreach coordinator, the New York Mycological Society started to connect with more local organizations, including the New York chapter of Latino Outdoors, which led a Spanish-language mushroom walk at the Fungus Festival, and the James Baldwin Outdoor Learning Center, which supplied mushroom pizzas.

The group then led a 15-minute stretch session. As attendees on foam mats and foldout chairs extended their limbs, the presenters shared cultural facts — like that Soma, the mythical potion in the Rig Veda (a sacred Hindu text), may have been made from a mushroom.

Listening in were KaliMa Julien, 34, an herbalist, and their partner, Candace Best, 38, an educator, both of whom became interested in recreational psychedelics partly as a way of treating mental health conditions.

“It’s always more affirming to know there are P.O.C. and Black people that are interested in this, and I wish there was more visibility on that,” Mx. Julien said. Though scientists have not reached consensus about the benefits of microdosing psychedelics, this year Oregon became the first state to legalize hallucinogenic mushrooms; lawmakers in New York State have also proposed relaxing regulations.

When they were not attending talks, hungry festivalgoers lined up for pierogies, tacos and djon djon rice, a Haitian dish made with black mushrooms.

Volunteers on behalf of the Bronx River Foodway, one of the few edible food forests in New York City, and the Stuyvesant Cove Park had set up metal carafes of mushroom tea (wood ear, reishi, turkey tail) to mix with herbal teas and syrups made of bark and berries. “The idea is that mushrooms are out in the wild, connecting with everything in nature — trees, plants — so we wanted to bring that vibe,” said Journei Bimwala, 40, an herbalist and health coach.

Though that tasting required preregistration online, some were able to sneak in until the cups ran out. But they were out of luck trying to get a swig of the mushroom ales, which was available only to the 25 attendees with the fastest fingers.

Less publicized, but perhaps more available, were tiny brown vials of “Fungal Decay Perfume” from Allie Wist, 36, an artist and writer who made the scent as part of a multidisciplinary research project with Lisa Schonberg, a composer and historian.

Ms. Schonberg was doing field work in Brazil, so Ms. Wist roamed the festival on her own, soliciting reactions from acquaintances. “People really love the wet dirt notes,” she said. One person told her that the perfume smelled like a river in Pennsylvania, while another said it recalled the color purple.

Other festivalgoers included Camille Girard, 24, Aloma Antao, 31, and Natalie Chester, 30, all recent graduates of the transdisciplinary design program at Parsons School of Design. They had created a “mycelium mind-set” board game, Shroomscape, and watched as attendees sitting on a patchwork of blankets tested it.

Players of the game have to act as mushrooms, advancing toward resources — compost bins, manure heaps, carcasses — in the hopes of sporing and growing even more.

A particularly devoted group of gamers sat hunched over a table for an hour. They moved colorful pieces of plastic over a round green board, occasionally calling in the designers for help.

“We found out later that we were playing it wrong the whole time,” said Brendan Porto, 34, a pharmaceutical copywriter.

The winner? Unclear. But what started as an empty game board eventually became dotted with a motley crew of shrooms, all reaching toward one another.