The mushroom man

Robert Kelly is a fun guy (get it? fungi?). If New College gave out honorary degrees, Kelly would certainly merit one. He never actually went to school here, but if you were to play six degrees of separation, you’d quickly get to him. Kelly is an edible mushroom cultivator at Gulf Coast Mushrooms, a self described “ragtag previously spaced out group of mushroom enthusiasts” who grow and sell edible mushrooms in Sarasota. And sell they do. Some mushrooms can cost more than meat, says Kelly, and they’re in high demand.

Gulf Coast is committed to radical mycology, the theory and practice of using mushrooms for societal, personal and ecological well being. Kelly’s own interest in radical mycology began with a page ripped out of a book. What he found was so fascinating that he went back, bought the book, taped the page back in place, and things were never the same again.

Photo credit: Yadira Lopez

“Mushrooms opened up my world to the rest of the natural world,” Kelly said.

A former flame brought him to Sarasota, where he came in contact with New College students, learned more about plants and planted gardens everywhere he went. Friend’s homes. Friends of friend’s homes. He’s worked in local community gardens, gives lectures and leads nature walks. Kelly is quick to tell you the scientific name of almost any plant or fungi. The Latin slips into conversation, like a voiceover from an encyclopedia. Human plant-encyclopedia. That’s what some people call him.

Photo credit: Yadira Lopez

“My lifestyle is different. I wear skirts a lot – my dad’s like ‘what are you wearing?’ And I’m like, what are you talking about? This is the most ancient form of clothing,” Kelly said.

That comfort with the ancient may be a part of why he’s so into fungi. Long before trees and grass took over the land, giant mushrooms covered the Earth. Scientists estimate that they’ve been around for at least 1,500 million years. “If the Earth is a 24-hour day, mushrooms have been around for 14 or 16 hours, and humans for like a second,” Kelly said.

Photo credit: Yadira Lopez

Medicine has always been plants, he adds. Mushrooms in particular have well-documented uses in traditional medicine worldwide. In China, the reishi mushroom has been used for more than 2,000 years. It was deemed so effective at combatting illness and disease that it earned the nickname “the mushroom of immortality.” The chaga mushroom earned the title “Gift from God” in Siberia, where it’s been used for epochs as an immune booster.

“[Mushrooms] are closer to us than plants. They breathe in oxygen, they breathe out carbon dioxide,” Kelly said. “Their adaptability is unmatched by anything on this planet. It’s a good idea to partner with them.”

Curious? Visit gulfcoastmushrooms.com

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