Meeting Medicinal Mushrooms with Sophia Rose
By Andrea Rossi
The morning was crisp with winter only a few short months away, much cooler at this high altitude. The sun was just beginning to peek over the green forests of Telluride and a small, ambitious group could be found scavenging through the trees with baskets & bags in hand. I was there too, just barely, at the Telluride Mushroom Festival 6:30am Foray, with one broken strap on my left Chaco sandal, the only evidence of my mad dash earlier that morning.
It was on this fungal treasure hunt that I ran into Sophia, a fellow mushroom hunter and Master Herbalist from La Abeja Herbs up from Albuquerque New Mexico. We immediately connected- on the serenity of the forest, on our excitement around the festival, on conversations of heart and herbs. In that meeting I was impressed by her grounded presence, her sincerity and openness, and from my professional stance working in holistic healthcare, her deep knowledge of the healing power of plant & mushroom medicines. We exchanged contact information and I felt certain this was far from the last encounter.
Theorizing Medicinal Mushrooms
I have seen the powerful ways that mushrooms intermediate on behalf of our bodies. My “day job” involves providing advocacy and support for women with cancer seeking holistic therapies, and the practitioners I work with regularly use different mushrooms in their treatments. I read research daily relating to the more common varieties of medicinal mushrooms, and these studies offer impressive results on mushrooms’ influence on immunity, cancer, chronic disease, and other processes. Yet, as profound as these research studies & implications are, I found that I was looking for more- more than the biochemical reactions, the constituents, the enzymatic interplay. Mushrooms are so complex, so brilliant in their design, so relational- I felt like I needed some medicinal understanding of this relational principle, something that the “constituent breakdown” was lacking – I needed an explanation, or at least some guidance. I needed Sophia Rose.
Nice to Meet you, Fungi
Our second meeting via Skype was a world-away from the dense forests of Telluride, but the felt effect, just minutes into our conversation, seemed as though no time had passed and we were in some sort of intimate coffee shop, sipping on tea & discussing the usual: friends, family, health…mushrooms. “I wish there was more of a sense of respect and understanding of the mushrooms as their own intelligent entities,” Sophia told me, “not just an emphasis on what they do for us.” No constituent breakdown? Intelligent entities to learn from? Bingo. I had found the right person.
So, what does it look like to “meet a mushroom,” I queried- I take things quite literally and for one ridiculous moment I actually imagined extending my hand for a ritualized introductory handshake. “Approaching mushrooms is much the same as meeting a person,” Sophia explains, “I don’t just immediately assume that they want to know me, yet come with positive regard for them and an open heart.” That makes sense, thinking back to a time where I overly enthusiastically introduced myself to a Prickly Pear cactus. “You take the relationship slowly, you listen- that’s most of it- just listening, being receptive. Sometimes nothing jumps out at you, and other times you feel pulled in a certain direction and it is important to listen to this because those pulls are often plant spirits that are calling to you.” I often had noticed on forest walks how a certain flower or tree or mushroom captivated my gaze, only to find out later that somehow it was connected to something in my life- a physical ailment, a life-lesson.
This way of meeting and interacting with mushrooms also has medicinal qualities. One of Sophia’s gentle remedies aside from medicinal teas, tinctures, or essences is the use of “first medicines,” the practice of sitting in the presence of a plant or fungi in one’s bioregion to receive healing. The idea of “first medicine” is one that she teaches and shares with clients when they seem open to it or their lifestyle provides the time and the space for it. “First medicine is the ever-present options to connect with the healing wisdom that is available through, for example, simply smelling and enjoying the presence of a rose rather than taking 30 drops of its medicine 4 times daily,” Sophia notes, adding, “you will receive the psycho-spiritual healing effects of the plant in both instances-it simply is a different way of relating to healing.” I think back to my recent retreat to the beaches of Goa, the rejuvenating smells of Arabian sea-salt, lounging on the sand under lazy shadows cast by palms, a welcome escape from the 20 million in my current home of Mumbai, the way my nervous system calmed, my digestion balanced, and how the world became just a bit more beautiful in just two days with this potent first medicine. “We can learn so much about plants & fungi from books, but sitting with that plant in the wild is so much more powerful, much like reading this article gives a sense of me as a person, but is not the same as sitting in the same room with me.” Yes, Goan beaches in a magazine are definitely not basking in a Goan sunset with a fresh coconut curry ladled into a bowl in front of me, my sundress lightly fluttering in the early-evening breeze.
Sophia made sure to clarify from the get-go that she is still new to working with fungi. The re-emerging world of Western Herbalism, or at least experiences she has had at conferences and exposure in school, has very little interaction with fungi outside of Chaga, Reishi, and Turkey Tail, though she is certain that most herbalists would want to include fungi into their repertory if given the exposure necessary to understand them more fully. But with her recent introduction, she already experiences just how powerful their teachings are: “On a physical & spiritual level, mushrooms have an ability to teach us how to care for ourselves & nourish ourselves deeply.”
This concept of nourishment is paramount in Sophia’s practice, a principle that she weaves throughout each treatment plan for her clients. She uses herbs secondary to learning about the self-nourishment practices readily available through air, sleep, food, and, of course, mushrooms. She encourages nourishing bone broths that incorporate local, region-specific mushrooms with a mix of herbs for depleted individuals or mixing mushrooms into a bitter hot chocolate blend to balance mind & body. “Chocolate works really deeply with mushrooms because they both bring joy & solidity. Chocolate contains phytochemicals that act as analogs for some of our endogenous neurotransmitters- namely oxytocin and serotonin- two neurotransmitters intimately connected to our ability to experience love, pleasure, safety, and happiness. Mushrooms as far as a I know, do not contain such analogs but they too nourish the body and spirit in a very profound way.”
Medicine for Modern Dis-Ease
As our interview came to a close, I was left with a new understanding of what “medicine” can mean for us. Mushrooms are unique in that- as the largest organism on this planet- their healing is not isolated to their fruiting body alone, the harvest that we put in our tea or tincture. If we apply the principle of first medicine to the entirety of what a mushroom is, then fungi offer us medicines that expand beyond borders, that heal in networks, or as Sophia so eloquently said, “When we look at the mycelial network, we see this is a medicine that everyone needs- the medicine of how to learn where they exist in the larger community and environmental context of their life, how they relate to themselves and the bigger picture in symbiotic relationships. Really everything is a metaphor and mushrooms are really coming out now to teach us how to exist on this planet.” A remedy for our bodies and our communities, for our ailments and the earth, a gentle remedy for such harsh times…Nice to meet you, mushrooms, so very nice to meet you.
A good way to learn more and keep in touch is through La Abeja on Facebook. Aside from inspirational quotes & herbal tidbits, Sophia posts classes, products for order (even if you are out of state), and new releases.
For Sophia’s Puffball Icecream recipe, visit Sophia’s article in the Telluride Festivarian (www.telluridefestivarian.com).
About Sophia Rose
A nomad’s apothecary, La Abeja Herbs (www.laabejaherbs.com) is the business of native Austinite, Sophia Rose. In 2009, she left the Lone Star State for the Rocky Mountains of Colorado to study with Paul Bergner at the North American Institute of Medical Herbalism. It was in the school’s apothecary that she first found herself happily at home in the role of resident medicine maker and wild-crafter. After completing her thesis on the magical and medicinal uses of Solomon’s Plume (Maianthemum racemosum) in 2012, she received her certificate as a Master Herbalist. Sophia currently spends her time between her beloved hometown, the desert of New Mexico, and places neither here nor there. Through La Abeja she offers regular classes, a host of wild-crafted medicines and herbal products as well as flower essence + herbal wellness consultations. She is also in the final stages of publishing her first book on the magical and medicinal uses of Solomon’s Plume (Maianthemum racemosum). Sophia’s guiding principle in life is simplicity—a virtue which extends to her practice as an herbalist + nutritionist. She has found through both her own experience and when working with clients, that often the most gentle of interventions are the most powerful.