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Mushroom Enthusiasts Discover Two New Psilocybe Species

Psilocybe maluti growing on cow manure.
Psilocybe maluti was found growing in pastureland on cow manure in the Free State and Kwa-Zulu Natal provinces of South Africa, as well as the highlands of Lesotho. Credit: Cullen Taylor Clark.
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Fungi aficionados have reason to rejoice, as two new species of Psilocybe mushrooms – best known for their psychoactive properties – have been discovered in South Africa.

Approximately 40 species of Psilocybe have been described to date. The two new species, Psilocybe ingeli (P. ingeli) and Psilocybe maluti (P. maluti), were discovered in 2023 and 2021 respectively. Their identification – documented in the journal Mycologia – raises the number of known indigenous Psilocybe species in Africa to six.

Citizen scientists discover two new species of Psilocybe

In 2021, Daniella Mulder came across a mushroom growing on bovine manure in the Free State Province of South Africa. It had blue bruising and Psilocybe-like characteristics. She took a picture of the mushroom and shared it with Andrew Killian, a renowned citizen mycologist in South Africa, to help identify it. Samples of the mushroom were later sent to Professor Karin Jacobs’s lab at Stellenbosch University for genomic analysis by Breyten van der Merwe, a student in the lab and the study’s first author.

DNA sequencing confirmed that this mushroom possessed differences in specific genome regions when compared to similar Psilocybe species. It was declared novel and named P. maluti.

In a similar scenario, Talan Moult, a self-taught citizen mycologist, stumbled across a small mushroom in Kwa-Zulu Natal in 2023. The mushroom’s size and cap didn’t align with the description of any known South African mushroom. Once again, samples were sent to Jacobs’s lab for DNA sequencing and analysis, which revealed another novel species, called P. ingeli.

Indigenous use of hallucinogenic mushrooms

Van der Merwe and colleagues’ paper documents the two discoveries, while also featuring insights on the medicinal use of P. maluti by Basotho traditional healers.

The Basotho, also known as Sotho speakers, are an ethnic group native to South Africa whose origins can be traced back to the pre-historic age. Individually, members of the Basotho group are referred to as Mosotho.

Citizen mycologist and co-author Cullen Taylor Clark is researching and documenting the use of mushrooms by indigenous people in South Africa. He spent time with Mamosebetsi Sethathi – a Mosotho traditional healer – to explore the use of P. maluti in healing practices. Locally, P. maluti is called “koae-ea-lekhoaba”.

“Two kinds of Basotho healers use the Psilocybe: linohe, who are the equivalent of a diviner or soothsayer and are able to ‘foresee the future’ using tools such as medicinal plants and the Psilocybe described here, and the ngaka-chitja, who have a vast knowledge of herbs and remedies but do not possess the ability of divination,” the researchers said.

P. maluti is used to introduce a “trance-like state”, Clark’s research revealed. “A brew is made by collecting large quantities of P. maluti and steeping the mushrooms in warm water, along with Boophone disticha (B. disticha), a strong hallucinogenic plant, known locally as seipone or leshoma. B. disticha has been used as a source of traditional medicine and hunting poison by a multitude of indigenous groups,” Van de Merwe and colleagues said.

The patient drinks the brew before being placed in front of a reflective surface. They relay their experience to healers, who interpret the visions and provide answers to the patient’s spiritual questions.

This study is the only recorded firsthand report of hallucinogenic mushrooms used in Sub-Saharan Africa, the research team said: “The knowledge shared and discussed in this study has been passed down through generations by word of mouth.”

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Collaborating with citizen scientists

Van der Merwe believes that there are more South African species of Psilocybe and acknowledges that citizen scientists will likely play a big role in identifying them: “These two species were sent to me by citizen scientists. It would be impossible for a single researcher to cover a fraction of an area these mushroom enthusiasts have access to. This is the only way we will be able to further studies in African mycology.”

“There are only a handful of mycologists in Africa documenting local biodiversity. Considering the vast mycological diversity on the continent, it is a daunting task. Collaborating with citizen mycologists is therefore hugely beneficial,” Jacobs concluded.

Reference: van der Merwe B, Rockefeller A, Kilian A, et al. A description of two novel Psilocybe species from southern Africa and some notes on African traditional hallucinogenic mushroom use. Mycologia. 2024. doi:10.1080/00275514.2024.2363137