You can find a species of Cordyceps, the fungus that ravaged the world in HBO Max’s “The Last of Us,” available for purchase at Santa Cruz’s own downtown mushroom store, Far West Fungi. Regional manager Naomi Wolf says the post-apocalyptic show is just the latest example of a flourishing mushroom renaissance. Get familiar ahead of Sunday’s season finale.
Have something to say? Lookout welcomes letters to the editor, within our policies, from readers. Guidelines here.
It’s right there when you walk into Far West Fungi, the small mushroom-filled store on Laurel Street in downtown Santa Cruz.
Beside the usual fare of chanterelles, oysters and shiitakes you can find a version of Cordyceps, the ominous fungus that brought forth the apocalypse depicted in the hit HBO Max post-apocalyptic drama series “The Last of Us,” the 2013 video game of the same name and its 2020 sequel.
Don’t worry, though — this species of Cordyceps won’t turn you into a bloodthirsty monstrosity bearing grotesque fungal growths all over your body.
The fungus for sale at the downtown Santa Cruz shop is named Cordyceps militaris rather than Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, the species that takes control of ants and makes the jump to humans in “The Last of Us,” which airs its season finale Sunday at 6 p.m.
Militaris, however, is far less dramatic. The unique-looking mushroom, appearing as bunched-up orange tendrils of varying lengths and circumferences, can be purchased either dried or fresh and can be used in a variety of ways.
“They’re actually really tasty. They have a kind of sweet side and toasty coconut flavor,” said Far West Fungi regional manager Naomi Wolf, adding that fresh Cordyceps militaris — which go for $10 for a small basket — are perfect for common dishes like stir-fries and ramen. “The dried ones and the tinctures are more for medicinal stuff.”
Wolf said that medicinally, the fungus is often used at high altitudes to help take more oxygen from the air with each breath, and that its use is popular among athletes. Further, as mushrooms are commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine, medicinal Cordyceps was briefly mistaken for steroids in 1993, when it was discovered that a Chinese women’s Olympic track team used the fungus for endurance — pretty ironic considering unilateralis literally wiped out the majority of humanity in “The Last of Us.”
Wolf said the show hasn’t deterred buyers when they catch sight of the now-infamous mushroom. In fact, business might even be on the rise in recent years. However, Wolf isn’t attributing that solely to “The Last of Us,” but also to increased community outreach and a generally heightened interest in fungi across the board.
“It’s come at the tail end of the ‘shroom boom,’ where mushrooms in general have had this renaissance and surge in popularity,” she said, citing Netflix’s “Fantastic Fungi” as a common entry point to learning about mushrooms. “People were coming in more after discovering the topic for the first time, and this kind of feels the same way.”
With the success of the show, Wolf said, she’s noticed more younger people taking interest in the world of mycology — even if it’s for a different reason.
“Medicinal use and ‘Fantastic Fungi’ cast mushrooms in a positive light, whereas ‘The Last of Us’ plays into the fungal phobia thing,” she said, adding that the fact that so much is still unknown about fungi plays into that morbid curiosity: “The more you learn the more you realize you know nothing. The only thing you can expect with mushrooms is the unexpected.”
But Wolf embraces the evolving interest in fungi, and given Santa Cruz’s foraging culture paired with its recent decriminalization of psychedelic mushrooms and a “woodsy, outdoorsy aesthetic,” that interest is poised to remain high.
“I always like anything that’s driving conversation about mushrooms, bringing people in, and getting them excited,” she said. “I’m into the curiosity.”