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Mushrooms with the city skyline in the background.
Photograph: By Sneha Ganguly

NYC’s first fungus festival welcomes mushroom-curious amateurs

Turns out, fungus is fun.

Rossilynne Skena Culgan
Written by
Rossilynne Skena Culgan

Sixty years ago, famed avant-garde composer John Cage (he’s the one who created the controversial experimental piece “4′33″) founded a club with his friends called The New York Mycological Society—the city’s very own mushroom club. 

Decades later, the club numbers 1,500 fungi fans, including many innovative artists, who regularly take mushroom walks through the city’s parks, conduct DNA sequencing and promote community science. Now, they’re hosting the first NYC Fungus Festival to bring the fungi fun to everyone. The free event will be held at Randall’s Island Urban Farm on Sunday, October 23 (reserve a ticket here).

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Whether you know nothing about fungus or are a big fungus fan, there’s something for you at this festival. Activities include a display of wild fungi from around the region, a workshop on growing your own fungi, a microscopy station, a chance to use contact microphones to listen to fungi, free mushroom tea, nature journaling and kids activities. Experts will lead walks around the island in both English and Spanish. 

Expect “all kinds of really cool interesting intersections between science and art,” said Sneha Ganguly, an artist and club member who’s helping to lead the festival. 

A table set up with various mushrooms and fungi.
Photograph: By Sneha Ganguly

True to its roots, the club still attracts artists, like Ganguly who looks for mushrooms to use for handmade papers, inks and paints. For her, exploring the woods while keeping an eye out for fungi is “incredible for my being” and a way to be connected to the world. 

Believe it or not, fungi are all around us even in Manhattan, and New York Mycological Society President Sigrid Jakob adores spotting them. 

“Fungi are weird. They’re fundamentally the oddballs of nature. They look strange and they pop up when you least expect them,” Jakob said. “They’re the emo kids of the natural world. Outsiders and artists have always felt attracted to them for that reason because they are so unpredictable and so beautiful and so strange.”

Fungus is having a moment, Jakob has noticed. Culturally, she said, “we’re looking to fungi to save the world. They have these superpowers.”

Given the interest in fungus, plus the club’s increased membership recently, the mycological society decided it was time to share their passion even more broadly. Ganguly also wants to help newer members make sure they’re approaching the subject safely and ethically.

Two people look at a table showing a fungi demonstration.
Photograph: By Sneha Ganguly

Back in the ’60s when the club was first founded, it focused on encouraging members to use their senses, thinking about ways to observe nature and find ways to turn it into art, Jakob explained. The club still attracts artists to that mission. And in a world that’s way more connected than it was in 1962, we could all learn how to slow down and observe. 

[Fungi are] the emo kids of the natural world.

If you get really into the fungus festivities, you can join the mycological society for just $20/year and attend its events. They visit 22 different parks and green spaces across the five boroughs every year because there’s fungus everywhere, Jakob said.

“We go on mushroom walks every single weekend, rain or shine, snow or hail, we’re always out there looking for the fungi,” Jakob said. “We analyze, discuss and ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ over all the amazing fungi that we find.”

It’s a low-risk environment great for introverts, Jakob added. If the socialization gets to be too much, you can simply walk off and look for a mushroom. 

A bright orange mushroom.
Photograph: Courtesy of New York Mycological Society

On a normal guided walk, the club spots more than 100 species of all shapes and sizes. There are coral mushrooms, jelly fungi that wobble, crust fungi, bioluminescent fungi, puffball fungi, fungi on dung and fungi that look just like the emoji version with a stem and cap. 

“Once you adjust your eyes and attune to the fungi, you’ll start seeing them a lot in street trees and busting out of the concrete,” Ganguly said. “They’re everywhere.”

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