Forget Flowers: This Valentine’s Day Give Them Mushrooms

Jed Oelbaum

From your prom to your funeral, odds are you’ll spend a lifetime celebrating and commemorating with flowers. Yet the natural world is a virtually bottomless well of beauty and intrigue—one may wonder how flowers, the plant world’s equivalent to musical theater, became our lone cultural go-to for so many romantic moments and important occasions. If you’re a freethinking lover or creative well-wisher, maybe it’s time to consider giving a present that celebrates some of nature’s most misunderstood gems. Maybe it’s time to give your loved ones the gift of fungus.

This isn’t a recommendation to present your Valentine with a basket of ordinary, vegetable-aisle button mushrooms (though it would be kind of funny if you did). There are neon mushrooms that grow flowing, silky nets, glow-in-the-dark bioluminescent ‘shrooms, playful puffballs, and brilliant indigo bluets that surpass anything in a supermarket bouquet. For your most #ontrend loved ones currently obsessing over the funky floral stylings of “freakebana,” fungus arrangements are an even more underground alternative.

Besides, much of the cut flower business is environmentally iffy at best, relying heavily on long-distance, carbon-intensive imports, not to mention heavy pesticide use and poor labor conditions. Every Valentine’s Day alone, consumers pick up about 100 million roses, generating 9,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions. Meanwhile, hardworking mushrooms are out there every day eating plastic waste and pulling heavy metals from contaminated soil.

Look, I don’t mean to demonize flowers. This isn’t even really about them. It’s about the fact that it’s time to acknowledge the star power of mushrooms—beyond the plate and the horrors of hippie bong aesthetics—as the majestic wonders of the woods they are. And luckily, these days there are plenty of artists, craftspeople, and designers ready to help you share the magic of mushrooms, incorporating them into fresh bouquets, jewelry and accessories, and other creative products.

The mushroom is an “underappreciated organism,” says Jill Bliss, an artist and naturalist based in the Salish Sea archipelago, off the coast of Washington State. Last year, Bliss made a splash with a series of mushroom arrangements she created and photographed on walks through the woods. Originally just a diversion she took up while waiting for paintings to dry, the swirling, colorful fungal formations “struck a chord with people,” says Bliss, leading to write-ups in the Guardian, Food and Wine, and a number of other art and design publications.

Her mycological medleys pulsate with almost hyperreal pastels and vivid neons, confounding the stereotypical mushroom palette of brown-and-white supermarket shiitakes and criminis. Mushrooms are beautiful, says Bliss, “and they’re a part of the ecosystem in the bioregion that I adore and live in. So, they’re like my neighbors.” You can purchase prints of the pictures Bliss takes, but she always leaves the mushrooms in place on the forest floor to decompose or become critter food. For Bliss, these wild things belong where she found them.

Others working with mushrooms offer consumers a more tangible dose of fungal charisma. Los Angeles florist Yasmine Mei, for example, has designed striking bouquets of mushrooms and herbs, and created tiny enoki arrangements for an event last year. Stylistically daring brides have even walked down the aisle with mushroom bouquets, like this cloudlike arrangement featured at a 2015 wedding at Babylonstoren, a South African resort.

And for a mushroom gift your loved one can cherish for years to come, there are other artists incorporating preserved mushrooms into all kinds of durable goods. Fomes fomentarius, for example—a fungus that grows in flat, crusty shelves on the sides of trees—can be made into a spongy felt material long used in traditional Romanian hats and accessories, like handbags.

Della Schafer of Moss Walker Designs, which sells mushroom-accented jewelry on Etsy and at local markets and fairs in British Columbia, is a sylvan taxidermist. “I try to capture the ‘scapes’ of the mushrooms,” she says. “Each mushroom dries to a different hue and gill concentration. Each lichen and moss dry differently, creating different textures.” Her pendants pairing delicate dried mushrooms with crystals and other forest flora look both antique and still living.

Fungi are “mysterious,” Schafer says. Unlike most other plants, they shun photosynthesis, preferring dark and dank environs. “We do not fully understand the breadth of their possibilities,” claims Schafer. “From arcing elegance to glutinous globs, the wild variance in their forms creates interest and sometimes fear.”

Despite the mushroom kingdom’s dark edge of lurking poisons and psychedelia, like flowers, some of these species have quite a reputation for romance. Fungus has a long history as a symbol of virility in some cultures, and a Hawaiian variety of the phallic stinkhorn mushroom was once rumored to induce instant orgasm in women.

NSFW associations aside, mushrooms lay claim to a cuter kind of forest magic as well, as refuge for bunnies hiding from the rain, or legend’s preferred hangout for sprites and elves. “I’ve always been drawn to the delicate beauty of mushrooms, their fairy tale-like appearance,” writes Iuliana Evdochim, owner of Nature Stories Studio shop on Etsy, in an email. Based in Romania’s Transylvania region, Evdochim, who says she lives “surrounded by mountains and grand forests,” preserves mushrooms, flowers, and other natural mementos in resin, often adding a tinge of blue pigment, or glow-in-the-dark powder, to amp up the enchanted effect. She tells me her work stems “from the desire to capture little corners of the forest in a miniature world, and mushrooms are central to these frozen-in-time moments.”

Bliss offers another, science-backed aspect of the fungal world: Mushrooms are avatars of cooperation, making them an excellent choice for celebrating a successful team project, say, or an anniversary. “I really love the idea of the mycelium—the rooted mass the mushrooms create together—and how it’s an integral part of the forest,” she says. Once called “the internet of fungus” by the BBC, this underground web of mushroom roots allows plants to share information, resources, and even disease resistance, over a distance.

Purchasers of Bliss’s mushroom prints can also know they’re contributing to a variety of good causes. The artist donates 10 percent of her artwork and income to charitable groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, Planned Parenthood, and the Seadoc Society, a wildlife veterinary group. Bliss says she used to just donate proceeds to local nature organizations, but “in the last year, with everything going on in our politics in our country, I realized ‘well, it’s not enough to just help the nature organizations.’ It’s all interconnected. Like the ecosystem.” (Like the mycelium!). Evdochim also tells me she weighs the environmental impact of her work cautiously, with an eye to not disturbing the forest’s delicate balances. “I always take care to gather the supplies in small quantities from different places, in order to protect the equilibrium of the ecosystem,” she says.

Obviously, despite their many charms, mushrooms aren’t about to overtake flowers anytime soon. It’s true, flowers elicit thoughts of springtime and renewal, whereas many see fungus in the opposite light, organisms born of rot, feces, and decay. But right now, Bliss isn’t the only one out there responding to the pressures of a world in disarray, and mushrooms, in their galaxy of shapes, colors, and cultural contexts, are perhaps the best way to say “may you grow beautiful, delicious, defiant, and new from this decaying log we call life.”