Brockley man makes mush-room for community through fungi workshops

Different mushroom garden designs. Pic: Adi Staempfli and Laura Selby. Design: Aysha Imtiaz

“Who thinks mushrooms on toast is plant-based food?” Adi Staempfli asks a group of eager locals gathered in the rain.

“Ah!” he smiles mischievously. “Mushrooms are not plants, not animals. We’re talking about an entirely different Kingdom, a different Queendom – It’s Fungi!”

Adi has been foraging mushrooms since he was a teen. He began the South London Mushroom Club in April this year and the workshop he is leading today is run in collaboration with the South London Urban Growers, affectionately known by the SLUGs acronym.

The two groups are merging their expertise to establish a community mushroom garden, with the November workshops being one of the first steps to getting the project off, or rather into, the ground.

“During the last two sessions of the mushroom club we designed different mushroom gardens and then built one living indoor garden based on these designs” Adi told Eastlondonlines.

He explained how the gardens serve the dual purpose of being aesthetically enjoyable as well as providing food eat, and now the group is excited to trial these designs in larger settings.

Workshop attendees design their mushroom gardens. Pic: Adi Staempfli

Projects like these are in desperate need according to Adi, and he hopes workshops like his help fill a fungi-shaped gap in crowded lives and curriculums.

“Fungi are vital to all living organisms,” he tells the group, and so often “education systems blur the clear distinction between botany and mycology.”

Adi wants to fill a fungi-shaped gap in the curriculum. Pic: Kate Balding

While talking, he passes around coral-like slabs of birch polypore, a mushroom famed for its antiseptic properties, while others handle delicately capped Winter Chanterelles.

This is a session for beginners, with attendees learning how mushrooms are technically the fruit of mycelium, the living organism of fungi, and how prehistorically some mushrooms grew as tall as the trees.

A little more morbidly, Adi goes on to introduce the mind-control capacities of another fungal group, Cordyceps, notable for the parasitic way they possess other living beings.

Whilst these fungi might be familiar to those who watched the HBO apocalypse series “The Last of Us”, Adi is quick to share how fungi can also be a force for good.

He explains how fungi have a fantastic ability to convert hydrocarbons into mushrooms, something he learnt first from a film by environmentalist Nicola Peel.

This means mushrooms may offer previously un-considered solutions to disasters like oil spills and remarkably, in 2007 oyster mushrooms were used to clean up oil slicks from Chevron’s 350 Amazonian petroleum wells.

“It works. It’s a low-tech method, local people can do it and yet it has had no funding because you can’t make quick money from it” Adi reflected.

His views on climate-resilience echo themes touched on at the Global Food Security Summit which took place in London last week, and many hope COP28 will help redirect funding towards the broader sustainability applications of living organisms like fungi.

Designs for a shelter amidst a kitchen garden. Pic: Laura Selby

Adi’s wider vision for the South London Mushroom Club includes a Kickstarter community lab made up of small local businesses and a not-for-profit, knowledge exchange hub.

“I don’t want to be a charity or take grant funding. All the income I generate is through workshops, services and goods and where you act as a network, or a company, you support others.”

This ethos of sociocracy leaves Adi open to the project evolving. “I’m happy to be the organiser of community practice but it is for the community to follow what they find essential and what direction that takes depends so much on the people.”

Alice Ashton, one of the founders of SLUGs also at the workshop event, told ELL there was a clear need for “more space for people to grow food, particularly following the pandemic.”

This has been made worse by extensive allotment waiting lists and the limited access so many urban communities have to functional green space.

Half a year since it began, the South London Mushroom Club has grown to include film outings, group foraging trips to Sussex and shared dinners, and in the ‘good fungi’ way, the groups’ enthusiasm is infectious.

Mock-up of a ‘totem pole watch’, one of many creative designs. Pic: Laura Selby

Adi offers training to groups like Grow Lewisham, who have a growing space in Downham while other community growing spaces across ELL boroughs include Roots Allotment in Meadow Hill Fields, Croydon, Stepney City Farm in Tower Hamlets and nine sites run by the Hackney Allotment Society.

While mushroom foraging can be fun, a great way to connect with new people and get outside, starting without proper guidance can be dangerous and Adi warns to: “Only eat mushrooms that you (not an App or someone on social media) can identify 100%.

“It is always advisable to learn from experienced foragers first, start with a few species, consult mushroom identification books and expand your repertoire slowly.”

You can find further resources for mushroom enthusiasts and a beginner’s guide to foraging on Adi’s website and Instagram.

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