Hackers, Mason Jars, and the Psychedelic Science of DIY Shrooms

By Joanna Steinhardt

It began with a Mason jar. It was wide-mouthed and translucent, good for air flow and the visual inspection of radial growth. The year was 1975 and Dennis McKenna, then a starry-eyed 25-year-old, was on a mission to grow magic mushrooms. An article in the academic journal Mycologia by a researcher who had grown button mushrooms for genetic analysis had given him the idea to use the household item as a vessel. It was small scale, affordable, reusable, and inconspicuous, plus he could buy it at any grocery store. He filled it with rye grain for a substrate, sterilized it, and inoculated the rye with spores he’d brought back from Ecuador and germinated on agar. And then he hoped for the best. It was a weighty undertaking; these spores were from mushrooms that had revealed cosmic truths to Dennis and his brother, Terence. Dennis wrote in his memoir some 40 years later, “We wanted a steady supply so we could easily revisit those dimensions; more importantly we wanted others to have their own experiences as a way of testing ours.”

Whether driven by trans-dimensional communications, the scientific method, or both, the brothers got their wish, and then some. Making use of Dennis’s undergraduate lab skills, and with help from Terence’s girlfriend, Kat Harrison, they formulated and then published in 1976 (under pseudonyms) the first reliable instructions for the controlled production of psilocybin mushrooms in Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide. From that first manual, a new domestic practice was born, one that adapts modern lab skills to populist, albeit psychedelic, applications. The directions were tailored to one species in particular, the most potent and easiest to cultivate: Psilocybe cubensis. P. cubensis (or cubensis, for short) soon became the model species—and the Mason jar the standard vessel—for magic mushroom cultivation.

The evolution of these home cultivation methods is a story of user-generated, iterative design, the kind that has become familiar in the internet age. Today, Google “How to grow magic mushrooms,” and you’ll find countless books, YouTube videos, websites, online courses, and free PDFs. Whereas the instructions in Psilocybin were meticulous and complicated, today’s methods are simplified to the point of being nearly fool-proof. As psilocybin moves farther out of the margins and into the mainstream towards mass market commodification, the story of Psilocybe cultivation reminds us that these mushrooms have been an object of scientific and technological experimentation for over half a century. This little-known history is entangled with the early internet in both its cultural values and practical sensibility. Though the criminalization of psilocybin pushed them underground, cultivators came together online, united by a collective fascination for mushrooms, a shared love of tinkering and hacking, and the drive to share their knowledge and know-how freely.

For most of its history, mycology has been overlooked and understudied, relegated to the shadows of botany and microbiology. Mushroom cultivation has been around in China since at least the 7th century but it didn’t develop in Europe until hundreds of years later. In the 20th century, a new scientific understanding of fungi gave rise to a high-yield industry, but mycology and mushroom cultivation remained an obscure niche. It was a revelation to both mycologists and the psychedelic-curious when, in 1957, an article in Life magazine described the use of hallucinogenic mushrooms among Mazatec people in Southern Mexico. But until the publication of the McKennas manual, psilocybin-producing species were a rare, seasonal, and wild-foraged delicacy among hippies. In the wake of Psilocybin, and with the growing interest in gourmet and medicinal mushrooms, a handful of manuals opened up the craft of cultivation in the ’80s and ’90s. The first of these manuals, Paul Stamets and Jeff Chilton’s The Mushroom Cultivator (1983), became a veritable bible for a new generation of aspiring mushroom farmers.