On a hazy August afternoon, a troupe of excited twentysomethings fanned out into the muggy shade of oaks and hemlocks in the woods of central Pennsylvania. Speaking sparingly, eyes fixed to the ground, they traced the mossy, wooded flank of a tributary to the Susquehanna River.
As I followed along on my first-ever Cordyceps hunt, it was presumptuous to hope to be the first to spot the rare fungus we sought. Yet less than 15 minutes into our foray, a slender orange mushroom in a mossy ditch caught my eye, and I called out to the group leader. William Padilla-Brown didn’t need to get close to see that, unsurprisingly, I had struck upon fungal fool’s gold: a cinnabar chanterelle. “The colors look very similar, especially this time of year,” he said graciously. After a moment’s more attention, even I could tell it looked nothing like the C. militaris we sought; for self-esteem’s sake, I squinted at the mushroom in hopes of seeing more of a resemblance, but to no avail.
“You really have to get in here and tune in,” he said. The 25-year-old mycologist then disappeared between the trees to regroup with his companions. Not two minutes had passed before a triumphant shout reverberated from down the creek. “Yooo! Cordyceeeps! Woohoo!” Scrambling over logs and ditches, I discovered the group crouched in a huddle along an embankment beside the creek. Edging in, it took nearly a minute before I could see the fungus at the center of all the fuss, a tiny ocher apostrophe hovering above the wet underbrush. No larger than a baby’s pinkie, it marked the troop’s first big find of the day. The collective energy was suddenly charged and borderline ecstatic.
Cordyceps (or cordies or cheetos, to those in the know) are subjects of intense passion for a growing number of young mycophiles across North America. They’re at the center of a growing community of independent, tinkering cultivators and a boutique nutraceutical economy in which Padilla-Brown and his cohort represent the DIY cutting edge.
Padilla-Brown is a bona fide mycological influencer, his profile steadily growing beyond the realm of fungi. He has tens of thousands of followers on social media and has been profiled in a growing list of articles and documentaries. He’s an author as well, with two well-received books on the cultivation of C. militaris, including the first on the subject written in English, and a seemingly endless list of ancillary projects that orbit the central goal of demonstrating and encouraging circular, local, sustainable models for small-scale agriculture. On top of that, he is also a father and maintains a parallel career as a hip-hop artist under the moniker It’s Cosmic.
Despite these accomplishments, Padilla-Brown has no formal education in mycology, ecology, economics, politics, nor any other field one might expect given the scope of his work. He describes himself as a “graduate of Google Scholar.” The son of parents in the U.S. Army and the Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, at various points in his childhood Padilla-Brown found himself living in London, Mexico City, and Taipei, before ultimately settling in Pennsylvania.
Moving from state to state, country to country, school to school, resulted in a fragmented education. Ultimately, after he dropped out of high school at age 16, he spent the next two years “focused inward,” meditating, traveling, spending time in nature, and experimenting with mind-altering substances.
“I’d be going outside and walking a lot, and getting visuals and things, but I realized a lot of the visuals were just the understanding of natural patterns,” he said. “Once I understood it, I would go to some other level. And I was like, wow, I can really understand the way nature works, maybe I should be working with nature.”
Having grown up largely in urban environments, seeing trees as just “green blurs alongside the highway,” Padilla-Brown first undertook the study of permaculture. A preternatural autodidacticism helped him advance his skills and knowledge in spite of a disjointed educational experience.
At age 18, Padilla-Brown began growing mushrooms. Two years after that, and shortly after the birth of his son, Leo, he committed to making a living in pursuit of mycology and his nascent concepts of social permaculture. “I was like, I can’t keep working as a server. I couldn’t get good jobs, because I was a high school dropout. I had [Leo] when I was 20, and I was like, I’m not going to let myself fall into this stereotypical ‘young Black male high school dropout with a kid that can’t get a good job.’ So I was like, screw it. I quit my job the year he was born, and I was like, I’m going all in.”
The gambit paid off, as Padilla-Brown finds himself in demand as a speaker and the increasingly familiar face of young, diverse eco-entrepreneurship. Though he’s wary of tokenism in some spaces where he’s invited to teach or speak, his message since has remained one of, in essence: If I can do this, anyone can, and more people should.
Cordyceps are entomopathogenic, meaning they kill insects. But they don’t just kill them. One of the scenarios most often recounted plays out like a scene from The Body Snatchers. It starts when the spores of a certain species of Cordyceps take root in the carapace of an ant—different species target different insects. Hyphae then thread throughout the insect’s tiny body, eventually seizing control of its nervous system. The ant becomes, in effect, a living zombie, unwittingly stumbling up a nearby branch, inevitably one that sits directly over the path most used by its hive mates. There, its final, irresistible impulse is to latch its jaws upon the twig, dying as the mycelium finally consumes all the insect’s innards. After that comes the unsettling coda; out of the back of the ant’s tiny neck slithers a slender stroma, its surface bristling and primed to rain spores down upon the next group of unfortunate ants below.
There are more than 400 species of Cordyceps, each associated with a specific insect: spiders, grasshoppers, wasps, to name a few. In Tibet, Ophiocordyceps sinensis and its host moth larvae are methodically plucked from the foothills of the Himalayas. Locally known as yarza gunbu, or “winter worm, summer grass,” it is regarded as a potent aphrodisiac, often fetching a higher price than gold, always with the insect still attached.
In North America, alongside mushrooms like lion’s mane, maitake, turkey tail, and Chaga, Cordyceps has emerged at the center of a fast-growing domestic market for medicinal fungi, representing an industry that is expected to exceed $50 billion by 2025.
The medicinal benefits of Cordyceps are largely credited to a special compound it produces, called cordycepin. The compound has been associated with anticancer, anti-fatigue, anti-inflammatory, immune, and sexual-function-boosting properties, among other benefits, elevating it to the realm of fungal superfood, complete with the full range of branding and value-added products that term implies. It’s now easy to find Cordyceps coffee, butter, powder for adding to your smoothies, and as an ingredient in tinctures and extracts. Ongoing research into medicinal mushrooms is promising, but as with most traditional and trendy medicines, not yet conclusive as far as the science is concerned.
Cordyceps are notoriously tough to grow and are mostly cultivated by large-scale facilities in China or other parts of Asia, which understandably do not go to great effort to share their methods with American growers. Materials documenting how to grow the recalcitrant orange fungus were essentially nonexistent in the English language until Padilla-Brown published his first cultivation guide in 2017. Since then, a fast-growing community of small-scale cultivators and genetic tinkerers has sprung up around the country and the world. Within a month of its publication, he said, people in more than 20 countries had bought the book; when we spoke, he’d sold almost 5,000 copies. Padilla-Brown also appears to be the first in the country ever to grow the mushrooms commercially; meanwhile, others have launched their own businesses around cultivating the fungus, such as Mushroom Revival, currently the largest producer of C. militaris in the country. Before these developments, domestically grown, whole Cordyceps fruiting bodies were nearly impossible to find on the market, driving their import price as high as $120 per dry ounce. Part of the goal in developing accessible cultivation methods was to get these prices down so that a domestic market could emerge.
Our hike in the Pennsylvania woods represented what was called a pheno hunt. Each new specimen uncovered in the woods would be brought straight into a basement lab, where the Cordyceps obsessives would toil to tease out and propagate the most desirable traits. Some look for strange and interesting morphologies, or high yields and fast grow times; ideally, they would also produce the most cordycepin, but identifying specific compounds required sophisticated biochemical analysis that few, if any, could perform or afford.
Part of the hope in promoting ethically, sustainably sourced mushrooms is that they’ll be worth the extra price to conscious consumers. The cannabis industry sets an example. High-quality extracts such as oils, concentrates, hash, shatter, and other refined forms of marijuana are familiar to informed cannabis consumers. That same product class is beginning to emerge around Cordyceps and other medicinal mushrooms. The question remains open whether there is as high a ceiling in the market for medicinal fungi as there is for pain relief and recreation represented by CBD and THC.
As I descended into the basement of Padilla-Brown’s Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, home, a pink glow gave the impression that I was entering a mad scientist’s lair. That was, in fact, not far from the reality.
Hidden in the corner behind a zip-up air lock was Padilla-Brown’s lab. Positive air pressure ensured that contaminants escaped, rather than entered, and a stereo made sure that he didn’t lose his mind after a full day of staring into readouts and petri dishes. Multicolor agar plates were stacked in the corner, encrusted white with dried bleach, a measure taken against soil mites that often hitchhike on Cordyceps. “Don’t touch that,” he warned as he inoculated tubs of substrate, noticing my curiosity, “It’ll make your finger feel weird.”
In a small refrigerator in the corner, stacks of bleach-free plates contained the strains he’d been cloning; many were the result of previous pheno hunts. After finding the mushrooms, he’d grown them out in the agar, and with a scalpel and sterilizer had propagated the resulting mycelia in dozens of glass jars stacked on racks outside the air lock.
“When you deal with all these clones, probably like 20 to 50 percent if you’re lucky are going to produce mushrooms,” he said. “A lot of them won’t do anything. So the ones that produce mushrooms, I then took spores from those, and then I did breeding, which took a long time, and I had to figure out the whole DNA thing. I taught myself molecular biology in like two and a half months. I’d seen people do it a couple times, but I just watched a bunch of YouTube videos.”
As I descended into the basement of Padilla-Brown’s Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, home, a pink glow gave the impression that I was entering a mad scientist’s lair.
A flow hood was set up next to a microscope. Beside that was a small thermocycler, used to prepare samples for genetic sequencing. Padilla-Brown conducted his own analyses to determine mating types. After preparing samples from a newly cloned specimen, he could visually assess their mating types using relatively simple gel electrophoresis—the process that separates genetic samples by length into easily read parallel rows, or bands—usually an intermediate step taken to verify sample quality before sequencing. The whole process took about two hours.
I had to take a mental step back and appreciate the scene. Here was someone without any formal scientific education, innovating genetic sequencing and cultivation techniques in his basement in ways that not only produced interesting biological results but also served as the basis of several small but successful businesses.
Exiting the air lock, we walked over to the source of the pink light. Wire warehouse racks upheld corridors of glass jars, the twisting orange fingers of Cordyceps growing atop cakes of myceliated rice. Held up by bungee cord and a stepladder, banks of LED lights provided the light wavelengths determined to maximize growth: red, pink, and blue, the latter of which encouraged the mushrooms to pin. Seeing all this, I had to ask: Why Cordyceps? “Why me?” Padilla-Brown retorted. “I didn’t choose this.”
For the time being, he was focused more on writing the next cultivation book than producing mushrooms at any kind of economic scale. The mushrooms he was growing would be put to use by Cassandra Posey, his partner in both senses of the word.
Upstairs, we sat down for dinner, where Posey joined us to explain their business concepts and goals for the future. Posey, whose company Cognitive Function made use of the Cordyceps grown in the basement as the basis of its line of tinctures, ghee, coffee, honey, and other fungi-infused products, had in turn helped improve the branding of Padilla-Brown’s company, MycoSymbiotics. Posey was hustling from coast to coast to get people interested in the “forest to table” health products produced by her, Padilla-Brown, and the growing community of eco-entrepreneurs in which they were becoming leaders.
“Will thinks very here and now, which is so great—I wish I could be more present in the moment,” she said as we set down our forks. “But my parents heavily instilled a lot of the big-picture, five-year-plan kind of thing into me. I grew up watching my dad run a company, and all that is like my playground.”
“I’m not a business person at all,” added Padilla-Brown, pulling out a Nintendo Switch as our energy wound down with the evening. “I don’t like doing business, I like doing whatever I want to do whenever I want to do it, which is beneficial for the students that I teach.”
The couple, I realized, were a living example of brand synergy, finding a productive intersection between Posey’s business acumen and Padilla-Brown’s multifarious projects and experiments. They told me of a story from the time just before they’d started dating. Padilla-Brown had managed to ferment cacao beans with Cordyceps mycelium, a difficult trick given its temperamental nature. On a visit to New York, he presented them to Posey as a gift. “That’s when I fell in love with him,” she said, half jokingly. “He was like, ‘I brought you a present,’ and then he hands me these freaking beans, and I’m just like, I’m not going to date this guy, we’re just going to be friends.”
It was late by the time dinner ended, so I slept on the living-room couch. The scope and ambition of Posey and Padilla-Brown’s plans suddenly seemed incongruous with the scale of the place in which they were being hatched. But outside awaited a world of fungal tinkerers eager for new methods and ideas to propagate.
The following excerpt is from Doug Bierend’s new book In Search of Mycotopia: Citizen Science, Fungi Fanatics, and the Untapped Potential of Mushrooms (Chelsea Green Publishing, March 2021) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.