Forget about dogs, mushrooms may be modern man’s new best friend. Aside from portobello burgers and the trippy magical mushrooms that you fooled around with in high school, there are hundreds of mushroom species that have medicinal and beneficial properties that the Anthropocene could really use.
Benjamin Lillibridge, owner and founder of the Kona-based company Malama Mushrooms, rattles off an impressive list of facts about fungi faster than I can type. Mushrooms can eat plastic. Mushrooms can clean up oil spills. Antibiotics are made from mushrooms. Mushrooms can be used as insecticides. One-point-three billion years ago, mushrooms were the first organisms to exit the ocean and take up residence on land, long before plants. Oh, and mushrooms aren’t plants, although scientists thought they were up until the 1970s.
Lillibridge’s fungi obsession began as a college student studying Environmental Science at SUNY Plattsburgh when he came across a TED Talk on “6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save The World,” by Mycology’s unofficial Godfather Paul Stamets. By 2015, he was growing his first crop of medicinal mushrooms in a South Kona lava tube. However, Lillibridge soon concluded that farm life wasn’t for him.
“I realized that my talent was being out in the public travelling, educating, and advocating on behalf of the fungus among us,” he says. (He is a pretty fungi, after all.) “I wanted to have a bigger impact, and share my passion for mushrooms with more people.”
He envisioned a brand and a line of products that could bring the benefits of medicinal mushrooms to the masses, while at the same time creating demand for locally grown mushrooms in Hawaii.
Malama Mushrooms was spawned in 2018. The brand offers four different medicinal mushroom powder blends and extracts with distinct health focuses – Reishi (stress, anxiety, fatigue), Lion’s Mane (memory, focus, brain, nerve), Chaga (anti-oxidant, immunity, skin), and Cordycepts (endurance, stamina, respiratory), and a mushroom chocolate bar with a blend of all four. The powder blends are mixed with organic cacao and cinnamon and can be added to coffee, tea, smoothies, or baked into recipes. Five percent of Malama Mushroom’s profits are donated to the Children’s Cancer Foundation.
You may be wondering if Lillibridge has a favorite mushroom. The answer is yes.
He is partial to the genus Laetiporous, flame orange edible fungi found in forests across the United States. One species, Laetiporus sulphureus, is nicknamed “chicken of the woods” for its uncanny chicken-like taste. Laetiporous mushrooms have medicinal properties, including antioxidants and lanostanoids that have been shown to inhibit cancerous growths. Hawaii is home to an endemic Laetiporous species and there is an undescribed one on the Big Island. This mystery mushroom isn’t an outlier either. As of 2018, only 5% of the world’s fungi have been identified. In Hawaii specifically, there are potentially up to 50 native mushrooms that are only found in the islands and have yet to be identified. All of them could have medicinal properties.
A citizen scientist at his core, Lillibridge has been partnering with Jeff Stallman, a graduate of the University of Hawaii’s Masters Program in Conservation and Tropical Agriculture, to collect samples of rare Big Island fungi. After years of getting (very) lost in the forest, they are submitting 50 samples to the North American Mycroflora Project, as part of the organization’s first ever Continental Mycoblitz.
“What I love about mycology is that there is so much room for discovery. Somewhere here on the Big Island might be an unidentified mushroom that holds the cure to a major disease,” says Lillibridge. “An average, everyday non-mushroom-nerd person could make the discovery.”
For other citizen scientists, mushroom enthusiasts, or anyone who doesn’t have any background in identification but might fancy a walk through the woods, Lillibridge recommends downloading the I-Naturalist App. With the snap of your smartphone camera, you can identify thousands of species of known fungi, plants, and animals, and maybe even stumble across one that is unidentified. If you do, take a picture and contact Lillibridge right away!
Another way Lillibridge is sharing his love for mycology is through educational mushroom farming workshops. In August he co-hosted a Reishi log inoculation workshop in Volcano with Zach Marmel of Ola Design Group and Noa Eads of Ai Pono Farms, his cultivation collaborators. He plans to offer more workshops on the Big Island soon.
Partnering with local farmers and creating demand for more Hawaii-grown medicinal and gourmet mushrooms is a key part of Lillibridge’s vision for the future of Malama Mushrooms. His aim is to encourage mushroom farming co-ops across the islands and contribute to the food security of Hawaii. He is currently working with Ai Pono Mushrooms in Waimea, Ola Design Group in Volcano, and Charles of Maui Mushrooms on Maui. For interested growers, Lillibridge says growing mushrooms is more comparable to taking care of an animal in a terrarium than it is to farming.
Malama Mushroom products are in 55 stores across the Hawaiian islands and the mainland United States, including Island Naturals stores on the Big Island. Their online store at https://www.malamamushrooms.com/ offers free shipping in the United States. Interested wholesalers, aspiring mushroom farmers, and fungi fanatics are encouraged to contact Lillibridge at email@example.com. Follow Malama Mushrooms on Instagram @malamamushrooms.
Emily Gleason is business writer who can be found at https://mthewriter.com/ She contributes a monthly business feature, Imua in Business, to West Hawaii Today.